The One Decision That Could Sway Alaska Elections This Fall

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There are happenings afoot in Alaska politics so impactful that they could sway entire elections. Have you felt them? No? That’s probably because they’re the kind of changes you have to stare at for half an hour with someone obnoxiously whispering, “Relax your eyes…” right into your ear before you see a 3D sailboat or Space Shuttle suddenly pop out right in front of your face.

Relax your eyes, Alaska!

Rather than attempt to explain what’s going on, I’ll instead start you off with this little game to show you the problem. I’ll give you three ballots below.

Look at this first one and consider honestly who you would vote for in this theoretical election:

reg ballot 1

Easy enough, right? Okay, well, now look at the second ballot and decide who you’d vote for:
reg ballot 2

Or how about this last one:
reg ballot 3

Not so easy, is it?

When looking at the first ballot, you probably knew the names and likely paid little attention to the party designations on the right. I made up the names on the second and third ballot; I’m guessing you were a little confused and instinctively looked to see the party designations. (Don’t lie, you did, didn’t you?)

Welcome to the world of most voters.

You and I are highly evolved and deeply informed voters, who consider and contemplate multiple issues for months, if not years, in preparation for casting our votes. (We really are “fit to rule,” aren’t we?) Frustratingly, though, the law permits even the most uninformed among us to vote. It’s a sad and maybe even just a bit callous statement, but many voters, particularly in a Presidential election year, do not know the names running down the ballot. As a result, many tend to vote for the party identification rather than the person–who they don’t know, just like you might have considered doing in this exercise when you scanned a list of names you yourself didn’t know.

The Alaska Democratic Party (ADP) is very aware of this very human tendency. Their move this week to sue the state so they can change their party rules and let those who aren’t registered members of their party run on their primary ballot is a blatant attempt to use this fact to manipulate the system and make their candidates more electable.

As a manipulative bastard, myself, I can respect that. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out to the world of politicos in Alaska the unforeseen consequences of such a move… and, boy, do they exist.

First off, most people have been focusing on the immediate problem that such a move would let candidates work with and take full advantage of political party structure while allowing them to message to voters that they are “independent.”

You can see this in the initial messaging of U.S. Senate candidate Margaret Stock. It is largely believed that the ADP is initiating their lawsuit with Ms. Stock in mind. However, here’s a snippet from one of her emails to supporters:

“And as an Alaskan, I know we need a U.S. senator who is more concerned with our state and our nation than special interests — which is why I am honored to announce my candidacy as an independent for U.S. Senate.”

Disingenuous? Yes. But that still even isn’t the biggest problem with the ADP’s move.

Here is the question that matters and there doesn’t seem to be an answer to: How would a candidate who is registered as a nonpartisan (N) or is undeclared (U) and runs and wins the ADP nomination for office be listed on the general election ballot?

I asked former Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell, who oversaw the Alaska Division of Election for four years. His response was that it’s rather obvious that such a candidate would be listed by the party primary they won, in this case Democrat, since that is who they’re representing on the ballot. (He was quick to point out, however, that that was only his opinion and he has not been briefed or seen legal opinions on the matter.)

When I posed the same question to the ADP, Communications Director Jake Hamburg said, “The Party would support whomever won our Primary, D, N, or U. If an N or U won, then we would support the N or U. In that case there would not be a D on the ballot.”

… that is fundamentally the opposite of Treadwell’s opinion.

I put the question to the Alaska Division of Elections and the Alaska Republican Party, with them saying respectively, “We don’t know,” and, “Ask Mead Treadwell. Let me know what he says.”

You can’t blame them for not knowing or having contradictory answers. Right now, state law mandates that a person running in a party’s primary must be a registered member of that party, meaning that this differentiation legally doesn’t exist right now.

But you can see, by the differing natures of answers given to that question, that this is definitely an open question. It is a question the Lt. Governor will have to make a ruling on if the ADP’s lawsuit is successful. And it is one that matters.

When people don’t know the names on the ballot (as you didn’t above), they vote for the best identifier they have. Since the only other piece of information on the ballot is party affiliation, that sways lots of votes and can swing an election.

Take the 2014 race for House District 15 between Republican-ish Gabrielle LeDoux and Democrat Laurie Hummel. Here is the final vote total:

gabby v hummel

LeDoux won by only 218 votes, or 5.62%. JBER No.2 had 3345 registered voters and broke over two-to-one for the “Republican” LeDoux. That is significant because military populations do not know as much about their legislative or local candidates as the rest of the voting public so they tend to vote for the party affiliation in far higher percentages. I don’t want to bore anyone with the intricate formulas at play here, but if the ADP was able to list Hummell as a U or N on the ballot they conceivably could have closed the Republican voting advantage on JBER to far closer to a 50-50 split. If that had happened, it comes down to a coin flip as to whether LeDoux or Hummell would have won that race.

And that’s not even the “crazy” scenario. Let’s say the Division of Elections takes the ADP’s interpretation of how the candidates are listed on the ballot; they decide to list party-nominated candidates according to their voter registration rather than by their primary election nomination. Under these rules, someone registered as a U and N not only could get the ADP’s nomination and spot on the ballot, but they could also effectively guarantee that no one at all is even listed as a Democrat on the ballot anywhere at all. That means they would be likely to get all the Democrat voters that would just die before they ever vote for a Republican, and still get to play for Republican and independent/undeclared votes since they aren’t technically a Democrat.

Sneaky, right?

That is, until some enterprising blogger figures things out and maybe makes an offer to a Republican candidate facing such a sneaky tactic. Let’s call this completely fictional candidate “Lisa.” The blogger could simply say, “Hey, Lisa, if you are willing to cover the costs of court battles and gathering the signatures for me to get on the statewide ballot, I will change my party affiliation to Democrat and run as an Independent.”

That blogger then says to the Division of Elections, “Why shouldn’t I be allowed to be listed according to my party registration rather than being listed as ‘non-affiliated’? That is how party-nominated candidates are listed, but why not me?” This brilliant blogger would likely win that argument and legal battle.

Now there would be an independent, non-party endorsed blogger candidate on the ballot who would be listed as a Democrat, and there would also be an ADP-nominated candidate listed as a “Nonpartisan.” Confused yet? Ok, Here is how the ballot might look:
reg ballot 4

At this point, anyone other than highly tuned-in voters would be thoroughly confused, and the election is a sham.

And it gets worse. Both political parties would quickly see how things work, and by the time the elections roll around in two years any majorly contested races would likely have a slew of Independent-but-party-registered candidates on either side just to confuse the opposition’s loyal voters. It would look something like this:

reg ballot 3At this point, there is little, if any, advantage to running in party primaries for any statewide campaigns capable of raising even a little bit of money. They could just slap their name on the general elections ballot with their party affiliation listed.

Welcome to a primary-less election world. Wouldn’t it be easier to cut out all the drama and just go to open elections now, or just say “no” to Alaska Democrats?

  • Lynn Willis

    Remember the words of Senator Con Bunde: “The first thing left behind when a train leaves the station is the platform”. Same can be said as soon as a newly elected Alaska politician leaves for Juneau. Today a political party affiliation in Alaska means nothing; however, a permanent standing caucus membership means everything. If you doubt that check out the membership in the Alaska Legislature’s majorities which includes members from both parties and totally controls the legislative process (including that newest member of the Senate Majority – that paragon of fiscal conservatism – Democrat Donny Olson). Then look what has happened to Republican Lora Reinbold who refused to join the House Majority Caucus.
    So let the organized parties discipline their selection criteria and then fund their own primary selection process using a convention, caucus or whatever means they choose to bring candidates to the General Election with that party label. Otherwise, if the state funds it,they can only participate in a “top two” primary. In that system only the two candidates with the most votes proceed to the General. Solves the problem of the “unknowns” certainly by the time of the General Election and anyway who can forget the “failsafe” party label system that produced “Republican” John Lindauer? .

  • davidnees

    1947 blanket ballot the only ballot decided by the people in a referendum. All candidates running in primary top two go to General.
    Egan not happy with this process institited blackline ballot, republicans on one side Democrats on other. You could only vote on one side of the line for all candidates. Result Republicand under Hickle.
    Changed ballot again.
    Iterations since set up court challenges.
    Washington has reverted to blanket primary with no party designation.

  • ratfishtim

    Keep in mind that we used to have open primaries, until the Republican party closed their’s.

    Perhaps now we should consider a change to a Top two Primary, like Washington and Louisiana, wherein

    1. “Voters to choose among all candidates running for each office. Voters do not have to declare a party affiliation to vote in the primary.”
    2. “Each candidate for partisan office may state a political party that he or she prefers. A candidate’s preference does not imply that the candidate is nominated or endorsed by the party, or that the party approves of or associates with that candidate.”
    3. “The candidates in each race who advance to the General Election will be the two who receive the most votes in the Primary. It is possible that both candidates who advance to the General Election prefer the same party.”

    p.s. My understanding is that anyone can change party registration and run as a candidate in a party primary, whether one is an “enterprising blogger” or not. That does not mean that a given party has to support a Democrat turned Republican, or vice versa.

  • Kansan

    This kind of speculation belongs on the “Fantasy” sports network. Military tend to vote “R” and a great many of the JBER registrants probably haven’t seen Alaska since Hector was a pup, though they get “their” PFDs every year.