Important lessons learned for IRV advocates in AlaskaThe following was written by the Center's executive director for reformers who were closely following the Alaska campaign.
In the wake of a big win for instant runoff voting (IRV) in San Francisco this spring, fair election advocates had a remarkable chance this summer to advance the growing movement for IRV. On August 27, Alaska became the first state in the nation to vote on implementing IRV for president and nearly all of their other major state and federal elections. Parties from across the spectrum backed the change, including Republicans, Greens, Libertarians, Republican Moderates and the Alaska Independence Party. A win, coupled with the news that Sen. John McCain supported the measure, likely would have accelerated the progress of IRV toward becoming a major political story this fall and beyond.
The campaign fell short, however, with 36% of the vote, a result that caught some advocates by surprise. Ten days out from the election, the Yes campaign was ahead among likely voters, and in those 10 days supporters called some 10,000 likely voters in live calls, initiated tens of thousands of pre-recorded phone calls from respected Alaskans, sent targeted mailings in the state's biggest cities and most competitive legislative districts, bought television and radio ads and won the endorsement of one of the state's three biggest newspapers in Juneau. The opposition spent significant money and its concerns were widely covered in the media, but advocates believed they were running a better, more energetic campaign. So why did the measure lose and what does it mean for future efforts?
While too soon to say anything definitive, there still are important lessons. First and foremost, IRV can definitely be won in the United States -- as evidenced by this spring's San Francisco win in the face of opposition spending by downtown business of more than $100,000 and by the near-sweep of Vermont town meetings on an advisory question about using IRV for statewide elections. But it is important to pick targets wisely and build the case for change effectively when seeking something as significant as adopting IRV for president.
The opportunity for a win in Alaska was predicated on two factors. First, the state has a high number of independents, with fewer than half of voters registered in a party, and the Alaska Independence Party had won the governor's race in 1990. Second, in addition to IRV having the support of all small parties, the state's biggest party was on board. Republican Party activists understood that they had lost major races due to the non-Democratic vote being split, and party leaders played a major role in collecting signatures to put the initiative on the ballot two years ago and supporting it this year.
But ultimately this was not enough, especially in a low-turnout primary electorate disproportionately dominated by supporters of the two major parties. One basic problem was that most Alaskans did not understand the flaws of plurality elections -- how they smother independent candidacies and deny majority rule. There was a small core of committed advocates, but not the kind of grassroots network that could regularly generate letters to papers, talk with neighbors and make presentations to civic groups. The campaign did not go into high gear into just three weeks out from the election, and half as much money ultimately was spent as in San Francisco.
In a critically important development, the Alaska League of Women Voters came out against IRV, writing the official argument against the measure in the voters' guide and writing letters and commentaries in papers around the state -- a significant blow, as the League commands respect. Several state Leagues have endorsed IRV, but the Alaska League chose to take its position without a formal study. Regardless, its opposition definitely hurt with swing voters, and was an indicator that the non-partisan case for reforming current rules was not well-understood.
Without wide acceptance or a problem to be solved, opponents of IRV could attack the measure from a range of angles that likely stripped off potential supporters for different reasons. Republicans were not united, as many elected Republicans weren't sure what the change would mean for their own elections and some party activists weren't convinced that split votes would hurt the party in future elections. Too many of the state's many independent voters did not understand that IRV would restore choices in elections that many believe had been taken away with the recent elimination of the blanket primary system (a system in which voters had received one ballot, and could vote in any party's primary for any given office rather than have to take just one party's ballot) --this problem was exacerbated by a ballot question that implied a Yes vote was an endorsement of the elimination of the blanket primary system and by the fact that the pro-IRV Republican party had taken the lead in eliminating the blanket primary. Many Democrats and liberals saw Republican support for IRV as a sign that they should fear it and likely voted heavily against IRV. And without any experience of IRV being used in Alaska, all voters were susceptible to opponents' demagoguery about IRV being "too confusing," potentially costly to implement and too much, too soon.
Looking to the future, state reformers are now eying Fairbanks and Anchorage, where there is debate about eliminating current runoff laws -- IRV would be a reasonable alternative. Indeed wins for IRV will become easier the more it is used in the United States -- in local elections, in state elections where the case is most powerful and in elections within organizations, on campuses and for identifying favorite athletes, movies and flavors of ice cream.
Reformers who want to adopt IRV would do well to start with a rigorous assessment of opportunities and pick targets where there is a convincing case against the status quo. If traditional delayed runoff elections are used for any public elections, for example, they provide an easy target, as IRV saves public money in running elections, acts as campaign finance reform for candidates having to run one fewer election and boosts turnout which so often drops in runoffs. Certainly if advocates are part of any organization in which votes are held, they should suggest using IRV when are more than two choices. Our Center's website provides a full range of suggestions and resources for activists.