A broad swath of the political spectrum was represented at the rollout of the Alaskans for Better Elections’ steering committee on Tuesday, making the case that election reform—particularly open primaries—would invite more thoughtful and independent representation in politics.
The 21-member panel includes former state legislators Sens. Lesil McGuire and Albert Kookesh, Rep. Jason Grenn, former mayors Karl Kassel and Mike Navarre as well as several other familiar names like Pat Race, Cordelia Kellie and Liz Medicine-Crow (a full list at the bottom of this post).
While the initiative seeks to implement ranked choice voting and transparency measures on dark money in politics, it was the open primary system that got the most attention. That’s because Alaska’s in the middle of the count from last week’s primary where it appears that in several Republican races generally moderate incumbents have been defeated by far-right party loyalists.
And thanks to how districts are drawn many of those candidates will have a clear path to Legislature, meaning only a small fraction of the overall district’s voters will have had a say in who represents them.
“We lost two very good people because of how the election is skewed … it was unrepresentative and allows the extremities of our parties to dictate the election,” said Jan-Carolyn Hardy, a former labor leader and member of the steering committee, of how elections are currently run. “That’s not what we want, we want the people to dictate the election and to dictate the results.”
Alaska has two primary ballots: One open to any voter and covers the Alaska Democratic Party and any other non-Republican primary and one that is only open to Republicans and independent (undeclared and nonpartisan) voters that covers just the Alaska Republican Party’s races.
Former Sen. McGuire spoke at the event, criticizing the increasing “politicization and partisanship” of Republican primaries in recent years
“I think that what’s happened with parties taking over move into different extreme camps through the years,” she said. “The voices of the majority of Republican Alaskans get quashed out—they get squished—and then the party takes over that process of vetting and having that thoughtful conversation with candidates for office that’s really the place for the voter. I think it creates voter apathy, frustration. … And what it does it leads to fewer viable really good candidates entering the space because the deck is stacked. It’s only certain people that can go before the party and it’s only certain people who are connected to certain interests.”
While the Alaska Republican Party opposes the measure, she said that’s more about who controls the reins power and less about furthering conservative values.
“When you think about what it does mean for Republicans, you have to think about Republican Alaskans. Republican Alaskans are for freedom, they’re for thoughtful leadership, they’re for dialog and communication and when I think you get a chance to really talk to the average Republican voter, you’ll see that,” she said. “When (party leaders are) opposed to Ballot Measure 2, I think what you’re going to hear is the fear of the process being taken away from their control and that’s a very different thing than being oppositional to Republican values.”
The proposed open primary system, known as the jungle primary, would lump all primary candidates together into a single primary race and the top four finishers would advance onto the general election. That general election would then be conducted with ranked choice voting, ensuring that whoever wins has at least the majority support of the district.
The hope is that candidates will have to broaden their appeal to all voters in a district instead of the relatively small group of voters that participate in the Republican primary.
Cordelia Kellie, an activist and community organizer, praised the measure for its potential to create a larger space for independent voters—who represent the largest political group in Alaska, outnumbering registered Republicans and Democrats—to participate in Alaska’s political system.
“My hope is that we’re not so partisan as you see in other states because we live so closely together. Frankly it is hard to hate up close, right? We have more in common together as Alaskans because of this shared environment than the division of being a Republican or a Democrat,” she said. “Having ranked choice voting helps smooth some of those political boundaries and those political lines and is a reflection of the independence of Alaska.”
Steering committee members
Bruce Botelho, Juneau; Co-Chair
Jason Grenn, Anchorage; Co-Chair
Bonnie Jack, Anchorage; Co-Chair
Barbara Blake, Juneau
Sheldon Fisher, Anchorage
Penny Gage, Sitka
Jan Carolyn Hardy, Anchorage
Katherine Jernstrom, Anchorage
Karl Kassel, Fairbanks
Ben Kellie, Anchorage
Cordelia Kellie, Anchorage
Albert Kookesh, Angoon
Lesil McGuire, Anchorage
Liz Medicine-Crow, Ḵéex̲’ K̲wáan
Mike Navarre, Kenai
Pamela Parker, Soldotna
Pat Race, Juneau
Greg Razo, Anchorage
Derek Reed, Anchorage
Kimberly Waller, Anchorage
Verner Wilson III, Dillingham