The new Alaskan beast

What do the readers of this site think of the electoral reform just approved by voters in Alaska? I have mixed feelings about it, and I refer to it as a “beast” only because it combines features that never before have been combined in this manner, as far as I know.

It abolishes partisan primaries (except for presidential nominating delegates) in favor of a two-round system. In this sense, it resembles the “top two” systems now in place in California and Washington. However, it has two significant departures: (1) it is the top four candidates who qualify for the runoff, and (2) in the runoff, a ranked-choice vote will be used to determine the winner.

The unique (as far as I know) system thus will combine two methods that are common for winnowing a field and ensuring a majority. That is, we have runoff systems (usually but not not always top two*) and we have “instant” runoffs such as the alternative vote (AV) that entail ranked ballots. Here we have both in sequence in one electoral process.

I generally am not a fan of combining features in this way, because it is uncertain how features that are normally deployed separately will work together. However, this combo has some things going for it. The first round qualification process will not be as limiting as the California case, thereby making it much less likely than it now is here that only candidates of one party compete in the final round, while incidentally also making it more likely that a small-party candidate might be able to compete in the final round. Yet it ensures the winner will be majority-supported.

If asked, I’d have advised a different proposal, even if it had to retain single-seat districts. (The new Maine model of AV in each party’s open primary, and then AV in the general, is more appealing to me.) But if I were an Alaskan voter, I am certain I would have voted for this.

For more on this measure and others, see Jack Santucci’s Medium post on the “Principles of democratic reform on the ballot in 2020.”


*The French National Assembly election rules can allow more than two candidates from the first round to qualify for the runoff, even though most of the time all but the top two withdraw. The German president, under the Weimar constitution, was elected by a two-round system in which multiple candidates–even ones who had not participated in the first round–could participate in the runoff.

39 thoughts on “The new Alaskan beast

  1. Top two was invented for the purpose of weakening political parties, by people who would support conventional “non-partisan” elections if they thought that was an achievable objective. Top four (or five, or whatever) with AV in the second round was cobbled together by the inventors of top two in order to forge an alliance with supporters of AV, thereby enlisting them in their crusade against the major party organizations.

    As someone who believes that the problem with political parties is not that they have too much influence, but rather that there are only two of them, I’m extremely conflicted about this. On the one hand, there is the argument — ably summarized by Prof. Shugart in this post — that top four reduces the worst impacts of top two. On the other hand, I am extremely suspicious of any alliance, no matter how tactical, with those who see political parties as the problem and non-partisan elections as the solution. A top four (or top five) election is just as “non-partisan” as a top two election and I see that as an significant defeat for electoral reform. I’m glad I’m not in Alaska and required to make up my mind about this.

    Incidentally, top four almost got onto the ballot in the city of San Diego, California. I can’t remember any details right now, but it is being proposed in various other places.

    Footnote 1: I have to put “non-partisan” is quotation marks. The phrase “non-partisan election” is self-contradictory.

    Footnote 2: The Albany, California ballot measure to adopt STV for city council and school board, which Jack Santucci described, in his article, won 72% to 28%. STV at the local level is a winnable reform.

  2. Will the step towards preferential/ranked choice voting for single members districts lead to STV in multiple districts? Could Alaska move to STV, perhaps for the House? The districts would be fairly huge.

    There would be no need for primaries if a STV and Open Party List is used, except for MMP if the party lists are closed. Winning seats would be winning votes overall not focusing only on the obsession with swing seats.

  3. My dissent is that I think intra-party hierarchy can and shd be reasserted by recharting $$peech thru the parties instead of PAC$, or $uper-PAC$, IOW, undoing the campaign finance deforms of the mid 70s. But the more critical flaw in the US is not that we have 2 major parties but that they both are tending towards being the major party and thus the GOP had a perverse incentive to attack its very own Romneycare and stir its activists into a frenzy over the recent “stolen” election… Thus, what’s critical is not ending the tendency for there to be two major parties, but rather the tendency for there to be one major party or where the weaker major party is unduly punished, due to the relative import of POTUS and Senate races and Gubernatorial races and how other elections are not perceived as important…

    Also, the first stage of top 4 IRV is similar to the 4-seat Largest Remainder PR with a Hare quota. It should end the tendency of the religious right or tea party radicals to dominate the partisan primaries for the GOP. It’s flaws wrt not being good for minor parties are prolly critical for why it was feasible…, since most of the “better” electoral reforms are elite-mass interactions and the bulk of elites in the US are associated with major parties.

    I think that multi-stage elections which combine different types of rules are the bees knees! AV or IRV wd work better if the top rankings were initially used as “approval votes” so as to eliminate most of the candidates in one fell swoop, instead of using recursive algorithms that bore people to death.

  4. I would have voted for it.

    I am not a fan of primaries in general, SNTV, or of making low turnout American elections even more complicated. If it were up to me, I would have one round, via RCV/STV, finishing in early November and be done with it.

    But I still would have voted for it as vote splitting is now much, much less of an issue in the general elections. Electing one person on a third of the vote is never a good idea.

    • At least the first stage will approximate PR, or 4 seat Largest Remainder PR with a Hare quota?

      It’s on par with single-seat RCV in my opinion, and not like the multi-seat RCV rules that imitate single-seat RCV…

      • Am I wrong or does the RCV only apply the general election? The top four primary sounds more like SNTV

      • U are not wrong, but when the number of seats is low, say k<5, Largest Remainder PR with a Hare quota tends to come close to SNTV or SNTV tends to be more like PR more easily…, which makes for more excitement! Even with top two primary, this past year there was excitement over trying to get 2nd place vs Nancy Pelosi in San Francisco, w. hope of gaining name recognition before when she eventually retires.

      • I can’t speak for SNTV approximating PR, but I don’t really have an interest in rating electoral systems by excitement. I prefer they simply produce acceptable results to the largest number of voters possible.

    • Yes, SNTV and simple (Hare) quota and largest remainders (“LR-Hare”) are close cousins. If you have LR-Hare, but no list wins sufficient votes for more than one quota or for a quota and a remainder seat, the result is the same as SNTV: top “M” lists each win one seat (where M is the number elected, and where an individual candidate can be conceptualized as a “list” of one).

      See Colombia before the electoral reform adopted in 2003, and Hong Kong, both of which have been discussed on this site previously. In both these cases, parties typically would have more than one list per district, just as parties–other than small ones–typically nominate more than one candidate under SNTV.

      There is a very important caveat, however: In “normal” SNTV or LR-Hare, you are filling M seats. In Alaska or California, you are ultimately still at M=1, and the initial SNTV-like contest is only resulting in a set of contenders for the second round. So there are important similarities, but presumably the final round (and its rules) hover over the process of candidate-entry and voting in the first round.

      • Methinks, when there are 3-4 seats only, SNTV ‘n LR PR w Hare wd be even closer and they’d be more effective at improving proportionality… Major parties will want to foster the growth of spoiler parties dividing the third party vote and going negative on their behalf against third parties that threaten to get 20% of the vote. But that can backfire. And, if the GOP were to be split in two, it wouldn’t matter in Alaska and so it might happen there (or in Maine) first. Esp., if Murkowski were to caucus with the Democratic party in the US senate! As I understand it, her family is very powerful in Alaska, so it’s likely they played a role in the elite-mass interaction that led to the reform happening.

  5. Yeah this seems like a mostly harmless set of changes to IRV. The top-four rule will kick some minor candidates off the general election ballot, which is annoying insofar as it restricts voter choice, but such candidates would be obviously unlikely to win anyway. The flipside of this is that voters are guaranteed a fairly simple IRV ballot: US states have so far been unwilling to shell out for OCR software, so IRV ballots which are made to work with existing counting machines have looked rather complex and confronting.

    With regard to the political consequences, I don’t claim to know a great deal about the Republican Party in Alaska, but this system does look like it would make it impossible for a repeat of the 2010 Senate primary (where moderate Lisa Murkowski was defeated by a conservative Republican, only to win as a write-in candidate) to occur. Of course, a bog-standard primary and general election setup would not stop Murkowski running as an Independent if she lost the Republican primary, so the gain here also seems to be rather marginal.

    • If it’s any consolation, in Australia with mandatory full preferencing candidates would not infrequently win from third place on the primary count, and very rarely from fourth place, and on one memorable occasion (Macmillan, 1969 federal election) from 6th place with 16% to defeat a rival with 48% of first preferences *, but since NSW introduced fully optional preferencing in 1981, only (from memory – I read-ed this at Antony Green’s blog, from memory) has a candidate won who wasn’t first or second on the primary count.
      In effect, it’s preferential top-two ** but with the added safeguard/ formality of exhaustively rather than summarily eliminating the third-placed and lower contenders.
      So I am dubious if the Alaskan “top four shortlist” rule will make much difference from exhaustive *** elimination. Are US voters (so far) any more energetic about expressing full *** or at least long lists of preferences than Australian voters are?
      * This was the 1960s and Labor faced a tight three-way conservative alliance of Liberal, Country (later National) and Democratic Labor Party (an anti-Communist breakaway from the ALP). In Macmillan there was a conservative independent as well. The ideological position of the main “third” party (after ALP and Lib/ Nat) has moved across the spectrum. By the 1970s and 1980s it was the Australian Democrats, who were roughly John Anderson 1980 (centrist “small-L liberals”, as we call them in Australia, to the head-scratching of the rest of the world). Since the 2000s it has been the Greens, to the left of Labor.
      ** In fact the first iterations of AV used in Australia, “the contingent vote” as it was called, did summarily eliminate all but the top two. Not unlike London Supp Vote but you could still number all the candidates. So maybe NSW has just come full circle.
      *** “Exhaustive” elimination = one by one, although not inconsistent with shortcuts like “bulk elimination if the lowest N candidates together have fewer votes than the [N+1]th lowest” or “if the highest N candidates together have more than N/ [N+1] of the votes, eliminate all lower candidates at once”. “Summary” elimination = “eliminate any candidate under Z% or not in the top N no matter how evenly the votes are distributed”.

      • **** “full” preferences in a US context means “numbering the maximum number of candidates as the electoral law allows”, eg all seven (?) in San Francisco. In Australia it means “numbering all, or all but one, of the candidates” since Australian electoral laws that ordain preferential voting have never, apart from one exception, that I know of, capped the maximum number of preferences. (That exception was the 1997 postal ballot for constitutional convention or “ConCon” delegates, where “above the line” tickets could preference all candidates but voters voting “below the line” – metaphorically, by writing names or ID numbers on ranked lines, like Italian voters before 1993 – were capped at the number of seats.

      • I defer to Jack on IRV elections at the local level in the US, but it certainly looks like candidates who lead on first preference votes generally win, although they are helped by truncated ballots in Minneapolis and San Francisco. Maine generally has fairly low numbers of candidates (since unlike SF and Minneapolis they hold primaries).

      • That was 1972 not 1969, the candidate that had won was in third place and had 16.6% of the primary vote which was the lowest ever to win a seat from preferences.

        Has there been any elections in Australia Federal and State where a candidate won despite being in 4th place in the primary count after the distribution of preferences? I remember an electorate in Papua New Guinea where a candidate won from 4th place and the only requirement is a minimum of three preferences 1,2,3, so it is possible even with optional preferential voting. I think same thing happened in San Francisco as well.

      • Thanks, 1972 not 1969. Also 45% not 48% and I misspelled “M[a]cmillan”. But otherwise, point holds.

      • As far as winning from outside the top two, I asked that question on Twitter a while back. The consensus of those who follow local elections using IRV in the US was that there was so far just one case of a winner having been in fourth place in the initial count, and just a few winning from an initial third.

    • I would add to this by saying that the system is an improvement on the Minneapolis/Oakland/San Francisco method of letting everyone run in the general but giving voters only three preferences. If there’s one polarising candidate with 35-40% and three or four candidates opposing them, a voter who wants to oppose the highly polarising candidate has to guess which candidate will make it to the final round. Under the Alaskan system, it’s much easier for voters to express their opposition to such a candidate. A “put the LNP/Republicans/London Breed last” campaign might be too negative for the tastes of public RCV supporters, but it’s very much what RCV is meant to do.

      • I don’t know what equipment Minneapolis and the state of Maine are using, but San Francisco’s new ballots allow voters to rank up to 10 candidates. In, Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro they can now rank up to five candidates.

      • It’s usually not hard in practice to know who’s a safe bet against an extremist candidate in the last week of the election with a Mpls style RCV. And once the polarizing candidates realize they’re chances of winning are way down, they don’t run that way or don’t run…

    • It depends on the attention generate in the 1st round when there are 4 winners!!!
      3rd parties might have a better chance of spoiling which wd get them more tlc…
      and the extremists wd realize that even tho they can make it to stage 2, they can’t win in the 2nd stage because of RCV so their turnout will be depressed or not increased relative to normal typically!

      They cd also do the vote counting more locally with only 4 candidates.

  6. Mark Roth says, “The top four primary sounds more like SNTV.” Mathematically, it is exactly and precisely SNTV. Politically, the difference is that you are not filling seats on a representative body. You are nominating a field of candidates for a single seat. The California top two statute calls this nomination by the voters to distinguish it from nomination by political parties (or petition in the case of independent candidates). It uses this language in order to rub our noses in the distinction.

    I don’t know whether I think the logic of proportional representation applies to the nomination of a field of candidates. One important consideration is the proper role of political parties. Should they be allowed to control the use of party labels on the ballot? My answer is yes. If your answer is no, then you will be a lot more accepting of top two, top four, etc., than I am. Another consideration is whether you think the electoral rules should be used to shape the party system. Top N will have some (possibly weak?) tendency to limit the number of viable parties to N+1. In the case of top four, five parties is a whole lot better than two. But is any artificial limit even acceptable?

    If the logic of PR does apply, then top four (or top five or whatever) can be said to have exactly the same defects (and, occasionally, virtue) as SNTV for a legislative body with the same district magnitude.

    • I’m cool with giving parties say so over who can use their label, if not immediately then later, as I expect Campaign Finance Regulation that replaces Citizens United to rechannel $peech through the intra-party hierarchy down the road, thereby reducing the sort of political entrepreneurialism that unduly degraded the quality of the US democracy since the mid-70s.

      I think the usefulness of PR for a first stage of a multi-stage election is going to be a growing field.

      I think many voters have cognitive limits so sometimes quality > quantity. If neither major party cd dominate US politics and we get CFRegs that are enforceable/adaptable, I expect the combination of those two will be greater than the sum of their parts and the duopoly will become contested by minor parties and perhaps complemented by Local Third parties(LTPs) who will either specialize in raising up neglected issues or be vents for extremists/racists in the US.

      • While I strongly believe parties should have the right to decide which candidates bear their labels, the problem in the USA is that it is not really clear who “the party” is. With hierarchical parties, there is some central party organ that can make these decisions. But who actually speaks for the California Democratic Party? It is not so clear with non-hierarchical parties.

        If California is going to stick with top-2 (or expand to top-4 like Alaska, etc.), I’d actually like to see a liberalization of party names. At the moment, the only parties whose names can appear on the first-round ballot are those that are recognized by the state. Having officially recognized parties is arguably a state interest when it is running partisan nominating primaries for each such party. However, when such primaries have been abolished, why not let candidates choose any party name they wish? (Modified proposal: If there is someone who can speak for a party, let recognized parties deny use of their label, but still allow other labels to appear on the ballot according to candidate preference–perhaps with rules not allowing the incorporation of names of existing recognized parties without their consent.)

        My motivation here is to make it feasible for groups of candidates across districts to coordinate on new party names if they so wish, or to form local labels if there is local demand for them.

      • Since the Campaign Finance deform of the mid 70s, there hasn’t been enuf intra party hierarchy in the US, as Eugene McCarthy describes in “No Fault Politics”…

        sounds reasonable. I would also hope that the next major party that’s effectively locked out of power by a dominant major party would push hard for 3-seat PR for state representative elections, akin to what existed in IL. My hope then is that if we demand the use of 3 seat LR Hare that it’d help encourage LTPs more so than minor parties and thereby mollify those who claim that minor parties growing would be detrimental in a presidential system with powers separated across the 3 branches of gov’t. LTPs wd both help and check minor parties from acting opportunistically!

      • Washington top-2 allows candidates to write whatever they want as a party preference, with no obvious impact so far (at least that I can recall).

  7. MSS

    At a 1998 St Petersburg city election, opposition candidate Oleg Sergeyev discovered to his surprise that two of the people he was running against were also named Oleg Sergeyev. He lost.

    Party names are exactly the same. At the 2013 Australian senate election the Liberal Democrats, who had no connections with the Liberal Party or the Australian Democrats, won a seat in NSW.

    If you want Ivanka Trump on your ballot in 2028 as candidate of the Party of California Democrats, abolishing party name regulation is an essential first step.

    • Hence the proposed clause about not including the name of an existing party. Remember, I have studied Latin American politics, where what you describe has been rampant in some countries. Paraguay used to have Radicals, Radical Liberals, and Authentic Radical Liberals.

      • The Australian legislation managed not to catch the Liberal Democrats with a similar rule to the modified proposal. Rather than leaving the issue to a court, it would probably be better to do controlled random testing on naming conflicts.

      • Sure, Enforcement is challenging. I still prefer a more liberalized arrangement than the current restriction (if we are stuck with non-partisan criteria for runoff qualification).

        Note that your example of someone who is clearly not a Democrat using a name the implies affiliation is already the issue anyway. Anyone can run and identify himself or herself as “Democrat” or any other approved label. And even in the old primary system, we had a case in San Diego Country of a KKK leader getting the Democratic primary nomination for a congressional seat. There is no vetting beforehand, whether or not we have state-recognized parties. It is not obvious to me that the situation would be worse if we just did away with it. But I will admit this is not something I have thought about extensively.

  8. Prof. Shugart wrote, “Modified proposal: If there is someone who can speak for a party, let recognized parties deny use of their label, but still allow other labels to appear on the ballot according to candidate preference–perhaps with rules not allowing the incorporation of names of existing recognized parties without their consent.” That sounds close to right to me. Especially in the context of local elections. Given the current legal definition of political parties, it almost makes sense for local elections to be “non-partisan” (which they are in California). This proposal would make it a lot easier for folks to think about local contests in terms of groups of voters and slates of candidates, rather than atomized individuals.

  9. Prof. Shugart: “Anyone can run and identify himself or herself as “Democrat” or any other approved label. And even in the old primary system, we had a case in San Diego Country of a KKK leader getting the Democratic primary nomination for a congressional seat. There is no vetting beforehand, whether or not we have state-recognized parties.”

    Under the old (semi-closed primaries) system, the KKK leader would have to have been a registered Democrat to run in the Democratic primary. Granted, anyone can register as a Democrat (the downside of putting the government in charge of party membership rolls). In today’s top two system, I believe that California does check the voter registration of each candidate. But I believe that candidates can chose to not have their party registration printed on the ballot. What I believe they cannot do is say on the ballot that they belong to a party they are not registered in. I might be wrong.

  10. So today, from different discussion forums, I have learned that Washington state’s “top two” allows both free choice of party labels by candidates, and write-ins in the runoff.

  11. With so much confusion about Measure 2, I thought I’d post the official summary:

    This act would get rid of the party primary system, and political parties would no longer select their candidates to appear on the general election ballot. Instead, this act would create an open nonpartisan primary where all candidates would appear on one ballot. Candidates could choose to have a political party preference listed next to their name or be listed as “undeclared” or “nonpartisan.” The four candidates with the most votes in the primary election would have their names placed on the general election ballot.
    This act would establish ranked-choice voting for the general election. Voters would have the option to “rank” candidates in order of choice. Voters would rank their first choice candidate as “1”, second choice candidate as “2”, and so on. Voters “1” choice would be counted first. If no candidate received a majority after counting the first-ranked votes, then the candidate with the least amount of “1” votes would be removed from counting. Those ballots that ranked the removed candidate as “1” would then be counted for the voters’ “2” ranked candidate. This process would repeat until one candidate received a majority of the remaining votes. If voters still want to choose only one candidate, they can.
    This act would also require additional disclosures for contributions to independent expenditure groups and relating to the sources of contributions. It would also require a disclaimer on paid election communications by independent expenditure groups funded by a majority of out of state money.

    It strikes me that voter education is going to be a bit of a challenge with using an X in the primary and numbers in the general election. On the other hand, because it is top-4 and not top-2, the field of candidates in the general will mostly include people who would have been nominated by RCV in the primary.

  12. Alan (or anyone who knows the answer), does the new Alaska law enable political parties to control which candidates can use the party’s name on the ballot?

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