Luncheon attendees participate in a mock ranked choice voting election at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center on Wednesday, April 13, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Luncheon attendees participate in a mock ranked choice voting election at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center on Wednesday, April 13, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Info on new election systems presented at joint chamber luncheon

Summer emerged as the clear favorite season in a mock ranked choice election held at Wednesday’s joint Kenai and Soldotna chambers of commerce luncheon in Kenai, where attendees were briefed on what to expect from Alaska’s new election structure.

Alaskans for Better Elections Executive Director Jason Grenn gave luncheon attendees a rundown on the new voting systems rolling out for this year’s statewide elections. Grenn, who is also a former independent member of the Alaska House of Representatives, demonstrated how ranked choice voting works for the chamber through a mock election in which attendees voted on their favorite season.

Alaskans for Better Elections Foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that aims to provide public education and research about how Alaska’s elections work.

“We know that there’s people who are very, sometimes skeptical or have questions, or don’t like these changes,” Grenn said. “But, for our group, we’re dedicated to sharing the information and sharing the correct facts about what’s happening, so that you as a voter can fill out your ballot correctly.”

Changes to Alaska’s electoral systems were approved by voters as Ballot Measure No. 2, which passed narrowly in 2020 with 50.55% of votes cast. That measure created an open primary system and ranked choice general election and aimed to increase transparency about the use of “dark money” — or campaign funding from undisclosed sources — in Alaska elections.

Due to the death of Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young, the new voting systems are rolling out sooner than initially expected. The by-mail special primary election will be held June 11; the Alaska Division of Elections will begin mailing ballots to voters April 27. The special general election will be held Aug. 16, concurrently with the state’s regular primary election.

Under the open primary structure, all voters will vote the same primary ballot regardless of political party. The top four vote-getters from the primary will then move on to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. If there are fewer than four candidates running in the primary, all will move to the general election.

For the June 11 special election, 48 candidates filed to run for the seat and will appear on Alaskans’ primary ballot. Voters will vote for one candidate. The top four vote-getters will move on to the special general election in August.

The special general election in August will be a ranked choice election. Ranked choice voting allows voters to choose more than one candidate in ranked order. Voters can rank up to four candidates, or just rank one, two or three candidates.

The ranked choice ballot shows a grid of bubbles, with one row for each candidate and one column for preference order. Voters fill in the bubble in the “1st Choice” column that corresponds to their first choice candidate. Voters then move to the second column and fill in the bubble that corresponds to their second choice candidate, and so on.

If a candidate receives more than 50% of the first choice votes, that candidate would be declared the winner of the election.

If no candidate receives more than 50% of the first choice votes, the candidate who received the least number of first choice votes is eliminated. Then, the voters who ranked the eliminated candidate as their first choice would have their second choice candidate votes distributed to the remaining candidates. The process will continue until one candidate emerges with more than 50% of the votes.

Grenn said he gets the most questions about ranked choice voting. One of Alaskans for Better Elections’ priorities between now and the special general election, he said, is to familiarize voters with what the ranked choice ballot looks like. Grenn said only one bubble per candidate, per column should be filled out.

“We really hope that the first time that Alaska voters are using this ballot, it’s not the first time they’ve seen it,” Grenn said.

In Wednesday’s mock election, for example, attendees were presented with a ranked choice bubble grid after scanning a QR code on their phones. Participants then ranked their favorite seasons. Live tabulation results showed how votes were redistributed until summer emerged as the first season to secure more than 50% of votes.

The open primary structure, Grenn said, will prevent the 63% of Alaska voters who don’t identify as members of either the Democratic or Republican parties from having to choose a party ballot during primary elections. The 50% threshold needed for ranked choice voting, he said, will give voters more confidence that the winning candidate has the most support.

Ranked choice voting and open primaries will encourage voters to be more engaged with all candidates regardless of party and will encourage candidates to pitch themselves to all voters instead of just their base, Grenn said. That’s because candidates will be competing for the second and third choice slots, as well as the first choice slot, he said.

Still, some remain skeptical of how the system will work. As reported by The Associated Press, some in the state fear the new system dilutes the power of political parties, that minority party candidates will get lost in the shuffle and that the system won’t work as intended.

One luncheon attendee Wednesday said they did not support Ballot Measure No. 2 and that the changes will keep people away from the polls. Others said the ranked choice system will cause too much confusion and questioned how the different rounds of tabulation will be made public as votes are counted.

In all, Grenn said the true election results will not be known until 15 days after election day. For the special general election in August, he said, the Alaska Division of Elections plans to release an initial batch of results on its website and then update results daily for all 15 days.

Between now and election day, Grenn said, getting accurate information about how the new voting systems work will be important.

“Knowing that these elections impact everything about our lives, and how important they are, how can we get the correct information out and resources out to our community and our loved ones?” is the question Grenn posed to the room.

The special primary election will be a by-mail election, which the Alaska Division of Elections has said underscores the need for voters to verify that their mailing address is correct. The division will begin mailing ballots on April 27. People must be registered to vote by May 12 to vote in the special primary election.

Voters can check their voter registration information at myvoterinformation.alaska.gov or by calling a regional office. Voters can change their address online at voterregistration.alaska.gov. The Anchorage regional office can be reached at 907-522-8683.

Sample ranked choice ballots are available on the Alaska Division of Elections website. Material presented by Grenn on Wednesday can be found on the Alaskans for Better Elections website at alaskansforbetterelections.com.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

A sample special primary ballot. (Courtesy Alaska Division of Elections)

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