An ordinance to adopt ranked choice voting in the Fairbanks North Star Borough is drawing a lot of interest from the public, and some think it should go to a vote of the people. Two substitute ordinances have been filed to get the question on the Oct. 5 borough ballot.
A public hearing is scheduled at Thursday’s Borough Assembly meeting, which begins at 6 p.m.
Four opponents of ranked choice voting held a demonstration last week prior to the assembly’s regular finance committee meeting, and the assembly has received a flurry of emails both supporting and criticizing the idea.
How it works is that voters rank one or more candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins a majority of first choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes would be eliminated from the race. Voters who picked that candidate would have their vote counted for their second choice. This process would repeat until one candidate wins a majority.
Assemblyman Frank Tomaszewski asked sponsors, Assembly members Leah Berman Williams and Matt Cooper, what happens if a voter only likes one candidate and does not wish to rank the rest.
“What happens if I do not give a vote to any of the others?” he asked at the finance committee meeting. “Will my vote be disenfranchised?”
“You can only vote for one candidate as your first choice,” she said.
“If you choose not to rank any candidates,” she added, “then you are choosing to not participate in that part of the process.”
“So my vote is then disenfranchised?” Tomaszewski asked.
“It’s similar to right now,” Williams said. “If someone votes for a candidate and that candidate doesn’t win, we don’t say that that vote is disenfranchised.”
The goal, according to Williams and Cooper, is to make sure that winners of political races have majority support. A quarter of borough races since 2005 have gone to candidates that lacked a majority of votes cast, according to Williams. Candidates with similar ideologies sometimes run in the same race, effectively diluting the vote and allowing a candidate with a minority viewpoint to win.
Alaska voters agreed to adopt ranked choice voting for state elections in a ballot measure last year. It goes into effect starting with the Nov. 8, 2022, election.
Critics of the voting method are worried that it would marginalize voters who haven’t studied every candidate in order to rank them.
“It would result in a much more complicated ballot and would result in a system that will be very confusing to voters,” Joan Hoza wrote in an email to the assembly.
“I am an informed voter, and I got straight As in school here in Fairbanks,” she said. “I am sure that I would take the time and effort to get educated and figure out this system, but most people that I know do not have the time to do that.”
Jason Long wrote that the idea has not been properly vetted.
“It lacks a good track record, and it also adds a lot of unnecessary clutter to the ballots,” he said.
Supporters are hopeful it would lead to better representation.
“Many folks are scared of ranked choice voting because they don’t understand it,” wrote Eric Petersen. “But I believe that with one or two elections using the RCV, we will see people come to see its benefits.”
The main difference between the two substitute ordinances that call for a ballot question — one is by Borough Mayor Bryce Ward and one is by Williams and Cooper — is that Ward’s measure removes a $75,000 appropriation for voter education.
Borough Clerk April Trickey said that if ranked choice voting is adopted, voting booths would have instructions for how to fill out the ballot. A mock election would be held at the Tanana Valley State Fair to help people learn the new voting method. The borough would also mail postcards to voters.
“We’re going to do as much education as we possibly could do,” the clerk told the assembly.
She was asked if having the city of Fairbanks and the borough using two different voting methods would cause problems.
“I don’t see any issues with that because sometimes we do get races with only two candidates,” Trickey said.
Cooper said the idea of adopting ranked choice voting in the borough has been under consideration for years.
“It wasn’t until the state measure passed that it became more financially feasible,” he told the finance committee.
According to the Alaska Division of Elections, 17 U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Santa Fe, and Minneapolis, use ranked choice voting along with the state of Maine, which uses it for federal elections.
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7545 or follow her at twitter.com/FDNMborough.