If Alaska Republican Party Chair Glenn Clary and former Alaska Democratic Party
Chair Executive Director Kay Brown had hoped to make a resounding case against the Better Elections initiative, then they probably would like a mulligan for Tuesday’s hearing in front of the House State Affairs Committee.
While both highlighted practical and legal challenges with how the initiative, which is on this fall’s general election ballot, would work if approved by voters, an underlying theme of the testimony was it would diminish the power of political parties’ role on the ballot. To them, that’s a bad thing.
The initiative would implement a so-called jungle primary system where the top four vote-getters in a nonpartisan open primary would advance to the general election ballot. The general election would then use a ranked choice system where voters could rank between one and four candidates. An instant runoff would be conducted races where a candidate doesn’t win a majority on the first round, removing the candidates with the lowest votes and awarding votes to the second, third or fourth choice of the voter until a candidate has a majority of the votes.
It’s the proposed primary system and how it would be conducted that drew opposition from both Brown and Clary, who argued it would unfairly diminish the role the political parties play in picking candidates. They both took issue with a provision that would allow candidates to hide their party affiliation from the ballot.
“Eliminating party labels is not going to increase transparency or improve voter understanding of where a candidate stands. Labels mean something and parties stand for something,” Brown said, later adding, “I am intuiting that the reason these changes are proposed is one of the goals of the initiative is to minimize the roles of political parties.”
Clary was more fiery in his appraisal of the measure’s impact on political parties, calling it “communistic” and threatening to bring a lawsuit if the measure’s enacted by voters.
“Political parties will become extinct. There will be no need for candidates or voters to affiliate or associate with one another under a banner of common principles or ideas,” he said. “If this initiative passes, I can see the Republican Party establishing a convention primary and petitioning the courts for the freedom of association under the First Amendment of the Constitution.”
Legislators never got the chance to ask Clary about how a convention primary, which ostensibly would limit voter participation even more, would work because he hung up midway through the meeting.
Backers of the initiative defended the open primary system, noting that parties would still be able to endorse specific candidates, and that the goal is to open up elections so whoever wins office has the support of as many voters as possible.
“Parties will still have all of their associational rights, they’ll have all of their rights to endorse candidates, have official candidates, have their values, have their platforms,” said Scott Kendall, legal counsel to the initiative group. “Some of these changes are merely the adjustment necessary when they’re no longer essentially acting as gatekeepers for the ballot.”
Many of the issues raised by Brown and Clary were not addressed in the legal review conducted by the Alaska Department of Law and the Division of Elections. The state had opposed the measure, but argued that it was too broad and violated the single-subject rule of the Alaska Constitution. The Alaska Supreme Court struck down that argument earlier this month and cleared the ballot for the general election.
Why it matters
There are certainly other issues with the initiative that are worth discussing in the run up to the general election, but opponents will need to to come up with something better than the extinction of political parties if they hope to prevail at the polls.
Alaska has a deeply independent streak with more than half of registered voters either registering as undeclared or nonpartisan voters. As it currently stands, the registration for the Alaska Republican Party is 23.83% while the registration for the Alaska Democratic Party stands at 13.05%.
More serious independent candidates have also emerged in the last decade to run for office. Former Gov. Bill Walker won his election as an independent governor (with a Democratic lieutenant governor) and several legislators have won under the independent label (though holding onto those seats has proved to be a bit of a challenge).
The Alaska Democratic Party, which was not officially represented at Tuesday’s meeting, has opened its primaries to independent candidates while Republicans have kept their primaries on a separate ballot. This year, several incumbent Republicans are facing challenges from the far-right of their party.
Kendall appealed to legislators, arguing that the open primary system would drive turnout and allow more voters—not just the most deeply partisan voters—to have a role in deciding their representation in Juneau. He argued that in the long run it could lead to a more moderate and less politically reactive system.
“This creates a big, safe bipartisan space for big solutions to Alaska’s challenges,” he said. “Take the budget for example, we may have a Democratic legislator for example that knows as part of a bipartisan compromise on the budget there needs to be a spending cap. They can work on that if that reflects the wishes of their entire district and they won’t face a closed primary where they may be taken out for that reason. … They won’t be potentially taken out by a primary electorate that is perhaps 8%-9% of their district. So, in effect 5% of their district can punish them for something that the essentially the entire district wants. It creates that safe space where the real work of governing Alaska can get done.”