Supreme Court upholds new election system in Alaska

JUNEAU (AP) — The Alaska Supreme Court has upheld a voter-approved election system that ends party primaries in the state and institutes ranked-choice voting in general elections.

A brief order on Jan. 19 affirmed a lower court ruling from last year. A fuller opinion explaining the Supreme Court’s decision was expected later.

The ruling comes one day after the justices heard arguments in the case.

The new system, narrowly approved by voters in 2020, is unique among states and will be used for this year’s elections. It is viewed by supporters as a way to encourage civility and cooperation among elected officials by favoring consensus candidates.

Under the new system’s open primary, the top four vote-getters in a race, regardless of party affiliation, will advance to the November general election, where ranked-choice voting will be used.

If no candidate in the general election wins a majority of votes cast, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. All voters who selected that candidate would have their votes go their second preference, and the votes recounted. The process of elimination will continue until a candidate emerges with a majority of votes and wins.

Attorney Kenneth Jacobus; Scott Kohlhaas, who unsuccessfully ran for the state House in 2020 as a Libertarian; Bob Bird, chair of the Alaskan Independence Party; and Bird’s party sued in late 2020 over the initiative, challenging its constitutionality.

Jacobus, who argued the case before the Supreme Court, said he was disappointed with the outcome.

“But Alaskans are going to have what they voted for. They voted for it, so they got it, whether people understood it or not,” he said. “And we’re going to have to live with it.”

Jason Grenn, a Republican-turned-independent former state lawmaker and a sponsor of the initiative, said backers can now focus attention on voter education and outreach ahead of the elections.

Laura Fox, an attorney with the Alaska Department of Law, and Scott Kendall, an attorney for the group behind the initiative, argued before the state Supreme Court in support of the system on Jan. 18.

Opponents of the measure argued it would dilute the power of political parties and raised constitutional questions.

Kendall, who helped write the initiative, told justices that political parties “have no right to be gatekeepers to the ballot.”

He said the state and country are “at a turning point,” politically and economically, and that Alaska voters created a “new electoral system that they maybe believe is an attempt to turn the tide toward reason and compromise. They have the right to do that. They have the right to make that experiment.”

Grenn has said the system would reward candidates who are willing to work with others, no matter their party affiliation, and that voters will be “empowered in a different way.”

This year’s elections feature races for U.S. Senate, Alaska’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, governor and the Legislature.

Under the new system, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor will run as a team from the outset. Previously, winners of their respective party primaries for each office were paired for the general election.


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