Court allows ranked-choice ballot initiative to start signature-gathering, a boon for all initiatives

A Superior Court judge approved an agreement today that will allow the organizers of the ranked-choice ballot initiative to begin collecting signatures while a legal challenge over the initiative’s constitutionality is resolved.

The initiative had been rejected by Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer last week following advice from the Department of Law that the measure, which seeks to implement ranked-choice voting, party-less primaries and stricter rules on “dark money” groups, violated the single-subject rule for initiatives.

Meyer told the group that they could whittle down the initiative or challenge the ruling in court.

The group backing the measure, Alaskans for Better Elections, filed a lawsuit challenging the decision last week in hopes of getting the three major provisions on next year’s ballot. On Tuesday night, the group announced that it had reached an agreement with the state that would allow them to begin gathering signatures while the case is worked out in court.

Judge Yvonne Lamoureaux agreed in a ruling today, according to a report by the Anchorage Daily News, noting that delaying the signature-gathering process could harm the initiative.

That’s because time is of the essence for any initiative groups hoping to get on the 2020 ballot.

Any group seeking to put an initiative on the 2020 ballot must gather the necessary signatures and turn them into the Division of Elections before the start of the legislative session, according to Alaska law. If they turn them in after the start of the session in mid-January, the law would bump the initiative to the 2022 ballot.

The lieutenant governor shall direct the director to place the ballot title and proposition on the election ballot of the first statewide general, special, special runoff, or primary election that is held after (1) the petition has been filed; (2) a legislative session has convened and adjourned; and (3) a period of 120 days has expired since the adjournment of the legislative session.Sec. 15.45.190. Placing proposition on ballot.

The start of the next regular session is set to begin on January 21, which gives the initiative group a little more than four months to collect the 28,501 signatures needed to appear on the ballot.

The requirement for a session to convene and adjourn between the submission of an initiative and the election, gives the Legislature the time to exercise its ability to knock voter initiatives off the ballot by passing a law that’s substantially similar to the initiative.

Why it matters

The decision could set precedent for other high-profile initiatives that are working their way through the system, which will face even tighter windows to gather their signatures.

Four total initiatives have been filed with the Division of Elections. One seeking to move the legislative session to Anchorage has already been approved for the signature-gathering process while two more have yet to be reviewed by the state.

The state has until Sept. 30 to make a decision on one entitled the “Alaska Students’ Educational Bill of Rights” and until Oct. 15 to make a decision on an initiative seeking to raise oil taxes on specific fields.

Both face even shorter windows for signature-gathering than the ranked-choice election, and any legal challenge would severely eat into those windows.

Backers of the oil tax initiative acknowledged at a media event on Monday that they have their work cut out for them if they plan to get the signatures together in time. They also doubted that the Department of Law, headed by Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, would approve the measure’s legality.

Now that the state and the courts have acknowledged that delaying signature-gathering could harm a ballot initiative, these other groups could ask for the same treatment moving forward.

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