Alaska Supreme Court upholds ranked-choice voting system

The Alaska Supreme Court announced that it has upheld the state’s ranked-choice voting system which will be used for the first time this year.
Published: Jan. 19, 2022 at 3:26 PM AKST|Updated: Jan. 19, 2022 at 5:23 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Supreme Court announced that it has upheld the state’s ranked-choice voting system which will be used for the first time this year.

Scott Kendall, who was the chief of staff for former Gov. Bill Walker, was in court on Tuesday to represent Alaskans for Better Elections, the group that successfully championed Ballot Measure 2.

“We’re overwhelmingly excited,” he said. “Now, there’s nothing standing between us and the utilization of a new election system in August and November.”

Kenneth Jacobus filed the appeal along with Scott Kohlhaas, a former Alaska Libertarian Party candidate, and Bob Bird, the head of the Alaska Independence Party. The three plaintiffs said Ballot Measure 2, which set up the new election system after it was narrowly approved by voters in 2020, is unconstitutional.

“We’re going to have to live with this craziness,” Jacobus said after the decision was announced.

An Anchorage Superior Court judge ruled against a challenge to the new law last year, but Jacobus said this latest appeal, with oral arguments held on Tuesday, may be the most important case since statehood for the Alaska Supreme Court.

The court upheld the entirety of Ballot Measure 2 and a full explanation of the brief order announced on Wednesday will be issued at a later date. The initiative implemented a ranked-choice voting system where voters can pick their top four candidates in order.

Jacobus argued that system is confusing and problematic, but Kendall said that a preferential voting system is “a more nuanced way of measuring support” by allowing voters to support other candidates if no one in a race reaches a majority on the first round.

The initiative also implemented a single, nonpartisan primary system that will see the top-four vote getters advance in August to the general election in November, regardless of party affiliation.

Jacobus said that’s unconstitutional as it pushes political parties out of choosing who appears on the ballot and he said that could hurt minor parties and independent candidates.

Laura Fox, an attorney for the state of Alaska, argued against that claim, citing a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court case that ruled a nonpartisan primary system was constitutional in Washington State.

“The parties are free to campaign for the candidates they support, but the ballot is not their campaign forum,” the state of Alaska’s brief said.

Former Republican Lt. Govs. Craig Campbell and Mead Treadwell submitted an amicus brief, arguing that it’s unconstitutional for the governor and lieutenant governor to be paired together before the primary. The state said nothing in Alaska’s constitution prevents that from happening.

One of Jacobus’ central complaints was that several provisions were impermissibly grouped together in Ballot Measure 2. He argued provisions requiring additional reporting for “dark money” in elections are popular, but noted that Alaskans overwhelmingly rejected ranked-choice voting in 2002, suggesting that it was unpopular.

Justices on the court said that Alaska voters may have changed their preferences for ranked-choice voting in the past 20 years. The Alaska Supreme Court also ruled in 2020 that Ballot Measure 2 did not violate the rule that initiatives be constrained to a single subject and allowed it to appear on the ballot.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information and quotes.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the name of former Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell.

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