Brochures are displayed at the Alaska Division of Elections office in Anchorage, Alaska, detailing changes to elections this year on Jan. 21, 2022. Alaska elections will be held for the first time this year under a voter-backed system that scraps party primaries and sends the top four vote-getters regardless of party to the general election, where ranked choice voting will be used to determine a winner. No other state conducts its elections with that same combination. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

Brochures are displayed at the Alaska Division of Elections office in Anchorage, Alaska, detailing changes to elections this year on Jan. 21, 2022. Alaska elections will be held for the first time this year under a voter-backed system that scraps party primaries and sends the top four vote-getters regardless of party to the general election, where ranked choice voting will be used to determine a winner. No other state conducts its elections with that same combination. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

How Alaska’s new ranked choice election system works

The Alaska Supreme Court last week upheld the system, narrowly approved by voters in 2020.

By Becky Bohrer

Associated Press

JUNEAU — Alaska elections will be held for the first time this year under a unique new system that scraps party primaries and uses ranked choice voting in general elections.

The Alaska Supreme Court last week upheld the system, narrowly approved by voters in 2020.

It calls for an open primary in which all candidates for a given race appear on the ballot, regardless of party affiliation, followed by ranked voting in the general election. No other state conducts its elections with this combination, which applies to both state and federal races.

Supporters hope the new system will help ease partisan rancor and encourage civility and cooperation among elected officials. Critics worry it will dilute the power of political parties, or that minor party candidates will get drowned out. Some are skeptical, too, that the system will work as intended.

A sponsor of the initiative, independent former state lawmaker Jason Grenn, has said Alaska is a test case for similar efforts being considered in Nevada and elsewhere.

Here is a closer look at what’s happening in Alaska:

HOW DOES THE PROCESS WORK? In the past, the winners of each party’s respective primary advanced to the general election.

Under the new system, there will be one ballot, available to all registered voters, with each candidate in a given race. The top four vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, head to the general election. Voters in the general election then can rank candidates by order of preference.

A consensus winner is selected if no one wins more than 50% of the first choices.

Another change: Candidates for governor and lieutenant governor will team up at the outset. Previously, candidates for each office ran separately for the primary, and the winners of each party primary were paired for the general election.

Maine uses ranked voting for state-level primary elections, and for federal offices only in general elections.

Ranked voting is also used in a number of cities for local elections, including New York.

WHICH RACES ARE AFFECTED IN ALASKA? All state and federal races are subject to the new rules. That includes this year’s races for U.S. Senate, Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat, its governor and lieutenant governor posts and legislative seats.

Some have seen the system as potentially helping Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who has a reputation as a moderate and has at times been at odds with Alaska party leaders, including in her criticism of former President Donald Trump.

Murkowski lost her party primary to a tea party candidate, Joe Miller, in 2010 but won the general election with a write-in campaign. She won her primary easily in 2016, the year Trump was elected.

Trump has backed Republican Kelly Tshibaka for this year’s Senate race, and Tshibaka has been endorsed by state party leaders.

Murkowski, in announcing her reelection bid in November, said the strength she offers is that “for me, it has always been about reaching out to all Alaskans,” not just Republicans. She said she hopes one outcome of the system is that candidates might be more civil toward one another.

WHY DO THIS? Scott Kendall, an attorney who helped write the Alaska ballot initiative, said the new system gives voters choices. The reason for ranked voting is to avoid “distorted” outcomes, he said.

If there were four candidates under the prior system, “you can imagine someone winning with 28% of the vote and being a very extreme individual because three moderates over here divvied up the rest of the vote,” Kendall said.

“You don’t want a situation where you get a candidate far outside the norm because a small group supported them. So it’s to get that moderate candidate — prevent the parties from being kind of an artificial gatekeeper to our choices,” he said.

The hope is that more work gets accomplished, particularly in the state Legislature, he said.

The system was unsuccessfully challenged by a group that included Anchorage attorney Kenneth Jacobus; Scott Kohlhaas, a Libertarian who made a failed bid for state House in 2020; Bob Bird, chair of the Alaskan Independence Party; and Bird’s party.

They argued, in part, that candidates for minor parties will “get lost in the shuffle” of names on the ballot. They also said the open primary forces parties to accept candidates they “may or may not want.”

Attorney Scott Kendall stands next to the State of Alaska certificate for the election reforms he helped author in a successful ballot initiative in Anchorage, Alaska, on Jan. 21, 2022. Alaska elections will be held for the first time this year under a voter-backed system that scraps party primaries and sends the top four vote-getters regardless of party to the general election, where ranked choice voting will be used to determine a winner. No other state conducts its elections with that same combination. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

Attorney Scott Kendall stands next to the State of Alaska certificate for the election reforms he helped author in a successful ballot initiative in Anchorage, Alaska, on Jan. 21, 2022. Alaska elections will be held for the first time this year under a voter-backed system that scraps party primaries and sends the top four vote-getters regardless of party to the general election, where ranked choice voting will be used to determine a winner. No other state conducts its elections with that same combination. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

Shown is a primary demonstration ballot at the Alaska Division of Elections office in Anchorage, Alaska on Jan. 21, 2022. Alaska elections will be held for the first time this year under a voter-backed system that scraps party primaries and sends the top four vote-getters regardless of party to the general election, where ranked choice voting will be used to determine a winner. No other state conducts its elections with that same combination. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

Shown is a primary demonstration ballot at the Alaska Division of Elections office in Anchorage, Alaska on Jan. 21, 2022. Alaska elections will be held for the first time this year under a voter-backed system that scraps party primaries and sends the top four vote-getters regardless of party to the general election, where ranked choice voting will be used to determine a winner. No other state conducts its elections with that same combination. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

Deborah Moody, an administrative clerk at the Alaska Division of Elections office in Anchorage, Alaska, looks at an oversized booklet explaining election changes in the state on Jan. 21, 2022. Alaska elections will be held for the first time this year under a voter-backed system that scraps party primaries and sends the top four vote-getters regardless of party to the general election, where ranked choice voting will be used to determine a winner. No other state conducts its elections with that same combination. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

Deborah Moody, an administrative clerk at the Alaska Division of Elections office in Anchorage, Alaska, looks at an oversized booklet explaining election changes in the state on Jan. 21, 2022. Alaska elections will be held for the first time this year under a voter-backed system that scraps party primaries and sends the top four vote-getters regardless of party to the general election, where ranked choice voting will be used to determine a winner. No other state conducts its elections with that same combination. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

More in News

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
Members of the Alaska House of Representatives on Saturday rejected the budget bill passed by the Senate earlier in the week. The bill will now go to a bicameral committee for negotiations, but the end of the legislative session is Wednesday.
House votes down Senate’s budget as end of session nears

State budget now goes to negotiating committee

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
Candidate for Alaska’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives Tara Sweeney, a Republican, was in Juneau on Monday and sat down with the Empire for an interview. Sweeney said the three main pillars of her campaign are the economy, jobs and healthy communities.
Sweeney cites experience in run for Congress

GOP candidate touts her history of government-related work

One tree stands in front of the Kenai Post Office on Thursday, May 12, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai taking down hazard beetle trees

The city hopes to leverage grant funds for most of the work

Former Alaska governor and current congressional hopeful Sarah Palin speaks with attendees at a meet-and-greet event outside of Ginger’s Restaurant on Saturday, May 14, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Palin brings congressional bid to Soldotna

The former governor took time Saturday to sign autographs and take pictures with attendees

In this October 2019 photo, Zac Watt, beertender for Forbidden Peak Brewery, pours a beer during the grand opening for the Auke Bay business in October 2019. On Sunday, the Alaska House of Representatives OK’d a major update to the state’s alcohol laws. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Graphic by Ashlyn O'Hara
Borough, school district finalizing $65M bond package

Efforts to fund maintenance and repairs at school district facilities have been years in the making

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
Members of the House Majority Coalition spent most of Friday, May 13, 2022, in caucus meetings at the Alaska State Capitol, discussing how to proceed with a large budget bill some have called irresponsible. With a thin majority in the House of Representatives, there’s a possibility the budget could pass.
State budget work stretches into weekend

Sessions have been delayed and canceled since Wednesday

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
Alaskans for Better Government members La quen náay Liz Medicine Crow, Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson and ‘Wáahlaal Gidáak Barbara Blake embrace on the floor of the Alaska State Senate following the passage of House Bill 123, a bill to formally recognize the state’s 229 federally recognized tribes.
Tribal recognition bill clears Senate, nears finish line

Senators say recognition of tribes was overdue

The Alaska Division of Forestry’s White Mountain crew responds to a fire burning near Milepost 46.5 of the Sterling Highway on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, near Cooper Landing, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Cooper Landing Emergency Services)
Officials encourage residents to firewise homes

The central peninsula has already had its first reported fires of the season

Most Read