Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system survives legal challenge

A still from the Division of Elections' video explaining the ranked choice election system.

The slate of election system reforms approved by voters with the passage of Ballot Measure 2 in the 2020 elections has survived its latest legal challenge.

On Thursday, Superior Court Judge Gregory Miller ruled in favor of the election reforms in a lawsuit brought by the Alaska Independence Party, frequent Libertarian candidate and Republican lawyer. Miller heard oral arguments in the lawsuit earlier this month, which was a largely uninspired showing for the plaintiffs. 

In his ruling, Miller found that the plaintiffs fell well short of proving that any part of the law violates the Alaska Constitution, including harming the associational rights of candidates and political parties as they had claimed. He noted that many of the arguments brought by the group were either discarded or voluntarily undermined during the proceedings. 

With arguments that ranged from Ballot Measure 2’s potentially confusing nature to how it would interact with the U.S. and Alaska constitutions, the plaintiffs frequently seemed to have an incorrect understanding of how the new law would even work. In reference to the plaintiff’s gripes about how gubernatorial candidates would pick their running mate before the primary under the new system as opposed to having running mates run in their own individual primary, Miller was not shy in noting they undercut their own argument. 

“Plaintiffs urge that this violates their freedom of association, but they fail to explain how,” Miller noted in his ruling. “They say that this may result in candidates from different parties being forced to run as a ‘team.’ But as explained by the Defendants in their briefs and then seemingly conceded by Plaintiffs at oral argument, here too that is simply not how the law works. No candidate is being ‘forced’ to team up with another candidates; rather, they choose, early on.” 

Scott Kendall, the attorney representing the pro-ballot group, made much of this during the oral arguments, noting that the plaintiffs’ case seemed to rely on a deeply uninformed understanding of how the law works and had, instead, retreated to unconvincing arguments about policy. 

“It really feeds into what the closing of his argument just now was, which was very telling. He went back to policy arguments. He said, ‘I don’t like it. It’s just terrible.’” Kendall said during his closing arguments. “Well, more Alaskans decided the other way. Ballot Measure 2 became the law of the land and it offends no constitutional provision”

Judge Miller even made note of that in a section of his ruling where he disassembled the plaintiffs’ argument that the ranked choice system would somehow violate the Alaska Constitution’s requirement that a winning gubernatorial candidate receives the most votes. 

“Plaintiffs never quote the new law’s language and then compare it to the constitutional language,” noted Miller. “They simply make this argument in a vacuum. By oral argument, Plaintiffs seemed to concede that the new law does not do that, although they were quite vocal about not liking the new law. But this is far from Plaintiffs meeting their heavy burden of proving that the law is ‘unconstitutional on its face.’” 

The ruling can be appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, which the plaintiffs’ attorney Ken Jacobus told the Anchorage Daily News is a possibility.

“The case is going to have to be decided by the (Alaska) Supreme Court, probably, despite the ruling,” he said.

About ranked choice voting in Alaska

Alaska voters approved a slate of election changes during the 2020 election that will go into effect for the 2022 election, which includes high-stakes races for governor, U.S. Senate and legislative races. Under the new system, candidates will compete in an open primary as opposed to the semi-closed party primaries of the previous system and the top four candidates will advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation. 

The general election races will be conducted with ranked voting where voters can rank candidates by preference. Those preferences only come into play if a candidate doesn’t reach more than 50% of the vote, in which case the candidate with the lowest share of the votes will be eliminated and their votes will be reallocated according to their rankings. This process will be repeated until one candidate crosses that 50% threshold.

In real-world terms, the impact of this system on the race has yet to be seen but supporters hope that it will pry power away from political parties and lead to generally more centrist candidates with broader appeal. 

The ruling

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