News-Miner opinion: The Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly has scheduled a 6 p.m. public hearing during its Thursday meeting to hear testimony on a proposal to adopt ranked choice voting.
Two substitute ordinances have been filed to put the question on the Oct. 5 borough ballot. One is by Borough Mayor Bryce Ward, and one is by sponsors Assembly members Leah Berman Williams and Matt Cooper. Ward’s measure would remove a $75,000 appropriation for voter education.
The question: Is now the time to implement such a system at the borough level?
In a ranked choice voting system, voters rank one or more candidates in order of preference on their ballot. 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.
Alaska voters in the 2020 general election narrowly approved — 50.6% to 49.5% — the Alaskans for Better Elections ballot measure after proponents waged a successful campaign using $6.8 million from mostly Outside special interest groups. The campaign ended up spending nearly $40 for each of the 174,032 votes it received.
The ballot proposition that would entirely revamp Alaska’s electoral system was put together out of the public eye — no vetting, no legislative debate, no public input. It drew bipartisan opposition from both major political parties and from former Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and former Republican Gov. Sean Parnell.
“It’s complicated, confusing, poorly explained and legally flawed,” former Alaska Democratic Party Executive Director Kay Brown told Alaska Public Media before the election..
“The initiative is an attempt by elitists to control and dictate to Alaskans how our state should conduct our election process,” Alaska Republican Party Chairman Glenn Clary told the news outlet.
The only other state with ranked-choice voting is Maine, although there is an ongoing fight to rid the state of it. Several cities and counties have adopted it, too, and some have repealed the system after negative experiences. It goes into effect in Alaska for the Nov. 8 election next year.
The new state law — 25 pages of complicated legalese — immediately was challenged in court, with plaintiffs claiming it violates Alaskans’ right to free political association, free speech, the rights to petition and due process, along with other rights guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and the Alaska Constitution. That lawsuit is pending.
Plaintiffs include Scott Kohlhass, the Alaska Libertarian Party, Robert M. Bird, the Alaska Independence Party, and Kenneth P. Jacobus, a Republican who also is the lawyer for the group.
In addition to implementing ranked choice voting, the new Alaska law marginalizes political parties, adopts Louisiana’s open, or “jungle,” primaries, and limits political campaign contributions.
The aim of implementing ranked choice voting in Fairbanks is to ensure winners of political races have majority support. Critics of the voting method are worried that, among other things, it would confuse voters because of its complexity. What would really happen is anybody’s guess.
From where we sit, ranked choice voting has not been tried in Alaska yet, and, depending upon the court case outcome, may never be. It is difficult to embrace radically changing the borough’s election system for something yet untested. It makes more sense to wait and see how it works at the state level before leaping in with both feet.
At this point in time, there is no need to play follow the leader — yet.