Elections reform group submits whopping 41,068 signatures for initiative

Alaskans for Better Elections turn in signatures for the election reform initiative on Jan. 9, 2020. (Photo by Matt Buxton/TMS)

ANCHORAGE—It took several trips for the backers of an election reform initiative to bring the boxes containing 41,068 signatures into the Anchorage Division of Elections office on Thursday, bringing a bevy of changes to Alaska’s elections a step closer to the 2020 ballot.

The Alaskans for Better Elections group is pushing an initiative that would institute ranked-choice voting, an open primary system that sends the top four finishers to the general election and increase campaign finance disclosures. The signature total far surpasses the 28,501 required by state law.

Former independent Anchorage Rep. Jason Grenn is the group’s co-chair and says the trio of changes are aimed at making Alaska’s elected officials more representative of their communities by ensuring that they’re supported by a majority of voters.

“What ranked choice voting does from a candidate standpoint is force the people who are walking door-to-door to talk to all their neighbors,” he said, noting that candidates would have to work beyond party lines. “Hopefully then that translates into whoever wins understanding their district better, being a better representative of their area and it ensures that they’ve received a majority of the preferences from that district.”

Jason Grenn, co-chair of Alaskans for Better Elections, turns in signatures for the initiative on Jan. 9, 2020. (Photo by Matt Buxton/TMS)Handc

In the two House races Grenn participated in, no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote. That worked out for him in 2016 but not in 2018, but Grenn said that his involvement with the initiative doesn’t have anything to do with his races.

Though the measure seeks to shine a light on election spending, Grenn acknowledged criticism that Alaskans for Better Elections has received money from Outside groups. He said that the group has started receiving money from Alaskans in recent months as the idea has caught on.

Looking ahead, he said Alaskans for Better Elections will have a lot of work cut out for it when it comes to informing and educating voters on the benefits of a ranked-choice and open primary system.

But before they can bank on the measure appearing on the ballot, the group will need to clear two big hurdles: The group will need to get verification from the Division of Elections that there are 28,501 signatures from registered voters among the signatures turned in (as well as meeting the geographical requirements to collect a certain amount of signatures from 30 of the 40 house districts) and it still has a pending legal challenge.

The ballot measure has been challenged by the Dunleavy administration, which argues that the measure is too broad and violates the Alaska Constitution’s requirement for legislation to pertain to a single subject. A Superior Court judge ruled in October that the single subject rule should be interpreted broadly and that everything fits comfortably under the subject of election reform.

The state has appealed that ruling to the Alaska Supreme Court and oral arguments are currently scheduled for February.

On initiatives

Groups have until the start of the legislative session—Jan. 21—to turn in signatures if they want to be able to qualify for a 2020 ballot. Which ballot it will appear on depends on when the Legislature adjourns from its regular session. An on-time adjournment on Day 90 would send the measure to the primary ballot while anything later would send it to the general election (initiatives appear on the first ballot that’s 120 days from the adjournment of the regular session).

The group backing a hike to oil taxes on large legacy fields has yet to submit its signatures.

The Legislature can remove an initiative from the ballot by passing similar legislation, which it did to a legislative ethics initiative in 2018. And while voter-passed initiatives enjoy a two-year protection against being repealed by the Legislature, measures passed by the Legislature do not and can be repealed the following session, which the Legislature did with the ethics measure in 2019.

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