Alaskans will get first look at new voting system this year
Until last month, the team at Alaskans for Better Elections had the summer to get the public up to speed on the state’s new voter-approved election system.
But that new system is now getting its first test sooner than expected, following the passing of long-time U.S. Rep. Don Young. The state’s holding a special by-mail primary to temporarily fill his seat on June 11.
That speeds up the timeline for Jason Grenn and his team.
“You know, everything that we had planned — I’d say, from June, July and August leading up into the primary — changed overnight," said Grenn, who's executive director of Alaskans for Better Elections, the group that campaigned to get the election changes passed in 2020. Now, they're embarking on a voter education campaign, including a visit to Kenai this week, to teach Alaskans about the new system.
The upcoming special primary will be the first go.
“In many ways, we’re trying to see it as an opportunity," Grenn said. "And really the silver lining for us is going — OK, as opposed to all the other races you have to think about, now you can think about these changes on just one race."
The changes come after Alaska voters passed Ballot Measure 2 in November 2020, greenlighting two main changes to how state and federal elections are conducted.
One is that primary elections will now be open primaries. That means every voter receives the same ballot, regardless of party registration. They’ll pick one candidate from the list and the top four vote-getters from each race will move onto a general election.
Which brings change number two. The general elections will be ranked-choice. That means there will be up to four candidates for voters to choose from and rank in order of preference.
“If you think of it as looking at a menu on a restaurant, going, ‘Wow, that pizza sounds really good, but so do the tacos … I’m not really feeling soup and salad, and I’m really not going to go for the seafood,’" Grenn said. "Think of it in that same vein for candidates. You’ll rank them in a preferential order: 1, 2, 3 and 4.”
That’s not to say voters have to rank candidates they don’t like. Grenn said that’s a common misconception.
“I’d say the number one question we get asked often is, ‘Well, what happens if I only like one person?’ Or, ‘You’re going to make me vote for people I don’t want to,'" Grenn said. "And of course, we would never ask that. Like I said, I was a legislator. I’m a voter. I would never want to be in a position of having to support someone I don’t want to.”
The new system has come with pushback. The ballot measure to get the changes through passed by a narrow margin in 2020 and received "no" votes from most Kenai Peninsula voters. And it just overcame a final legal challenge earlier this year.
Grenn said no matter how voters feel about the new system, it’s important they know how to vote come June, when they'll have their pick of nearly 50 candidates in the special by-mail election.
The division has a sample ballot for that primary on their website. It’s a big one.
"In the previous system, party leaders would have selected one candidate for their party to represent their party and they would’ve been on the ballot," Grenn said. "And now you’re seeing quite the opposite. You’re seeing a lot of different Alaskans feel like they have something to say, they have a voice and would like to do this race. And that’s why we have 48 candidates in this primary election.”
Following the special primary is the special general election, on Aug. 16. That same day, the Division of Elections is holding the regular election for the seat, for the next congressional term.
It's a lot of dates and information to keep in mind. Grenn said Alaskans for Better Elections is starting to work groups around the state, like the League of Women Voters and AARP, to set them up with resources and funding to get the word out to their own members. He said local leaders can reach out to him and the group if they’re interested in getting those resources together for their own constituents.