State Supreme Court explains decision upholding ranked-choice voting

The Alaska Supreme Court issued a full opinion on Oct. 21, explaining why it upheld the state’s new ranked-choice voting and open-primary system as constitutional in January.

The five justices issued a brief order at the time in favor of the new system that was narrowly approved by voters in a 2020 ballot measure. It was issued quickly to confirm to the Alaska Division of Elections that the new voting system would be used this year.

Alaska is the second state after Maine to implement ranked-choice voting, in which voters are asked to rank four candidates — and a write-in option — in order of preference. And it is the first state to couple that with an open-primary system.

Republican Kenneth Jacobus, a longtime Alaska attorney, appeared on behalf of himself, Libertarian legislative candidate Scott Kohlhaas and Bob Bird, head of the Alaskan Independence Party, to challenge the new system.

Former Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and former Fairbanks state Rep. Dick Randolph each submitted documents in support of Jacobus. They argued ranked-choice voting violated a constitutional provision that “the candidate receiving the greatest number of votes shall be governor,” partly because after multiple rounds of counting, the winner may not have gotten the most first-choice votes.

The justices rejected their arguments. The ranked-choice tabulation process is used if no candidate gets more than half the first-choice votes. In that situation, the last-place candidate is then eliminated and their votes are redistributed to the other candidates based on their supporters’ second-choice votes. That process is repeated until one candidate has a clear majority.

In their 57-page opinion, the justices said that the tabulation process would still result in a gubernatorial candidate winning with the greatest number of votes.

They also rejected arguments that an open-primary burdens political parties’ right to choose their own candidates. Instead, it merely narrows the field of candidates by allowing the top four vote-getters, regardless of party, to advance to the general election, they said.

Jacobus argued political parties would be weakened because candidates can appear on the ballot with their party registration, which could imply they had been endorsed by the party. The court said instructions on the ballot made clear that a candidate’s affiliation does not necessarily equal an endorsement, and Alaskans would have enough common sense to tell the difference.

Political observers have noted that moderate candidates seem to have benefited from the new open primary system used in August, which allowed voters of any political persuasion to cast a ballot for any candidate they wanted. U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, a moderate Democrat, also won the special U.S. House race — Alaska’s first election to use ranked-choice voting — defeating two Republicans, former Gov. Sarah Palin and businessman Nick Begich III.

Since then, several Republican legislative candidates have spoken publicly in opposition to the new ranked-choice voting system during the lead-up to this year’s election. They’ve pledged to try to repeal it if they are elected.


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