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Juneau Empire

Ballot measure could change way Alaska elects officials
By Timothy Inklebarger
July 19, 2002

When voters go to the polls to choose a candidate during the primary election Aug. 27, they also will vote on a ballot measure that totally would restructure the way officials are elected.

Called "preferential voting" or "instant runoff voting," the measure would allow voters to choose each candidate on the ballot in order of preference.

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, then the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes would be eliminated. The eliminated candidate's second-choice votes then would be distributed to the remaining candidates. This would continue until one candidate receives a majority of the votes.

The change would apply to all statewide elected officials except the governor and lieutenant governor.

The voting structure has been adopted by a few municipalities across the country, most recently in San Francisco. It also is used to elect the president of Ireland, members of the House of Representative in Australia and the mayor of London. If the measure is approved, Alaska would become the first state to use the system.

Restructuring the voting system is intended to guarantee electing candidates through a majority of the vote, according to Chip Wagoner, a Republican strategist who helped write the ballot measure.

"People don't want an either-or choice," Wagoner said, noting that Alaska was a two-party state in the 1950s but now has several parties.

In addition to the Democratic and Republican parties, Alaska voters choose among candidates representing the Alaskan Independence Party, Green Party, Libertarian Party and Republican Moderate Party.

Wagoner characterized Alaska as a conservative state where election dynamics have changed due to third-party candidates siphoning votes from the Republican Party. He said the new system of instant runoff voting would allow conservative-minded voters to vote for third-party candidates without feeling they wasted their vote on a candidate who is certain to lose.

"It should be a majority rule with protection of minority rights, not a minority rule with protection of majority rights," Wagoner said.

The concept of instant runoff voting is not supported by all Republicans, but the party did make the issue a top priority at its 2000 state convention, Wagoner said.

Although the measure would benefit Republicans, Wagoner said political climates change and it eventually could benefit Democrats.

For instance, if Natives in the state started their own political party, "then instant runoff voting would help Democrats," Wagoner said.

Those who oppose the measure say the current voting system works and that implementing a new one would create confusion.

"In working on this issue I have met so many people that are confused as to how the system would work," said Sarah Lemagie, a coordinator for a group called Fair Elections for Alaska, which opposes the measure. "It's making the election process more complicated when it should be kept simple and easy to understand."

Lemagie said the voting structure violates the concept of one person, one vote, because a person whose candidate is eliminated early in the election may have his or her vote counted only once, while others could have theirs counted several times in subsequent rounds of elimination.

Lemagie said voters who vote for only one candidate also take the risk of having their vote eliminated.

Wagoner said the concept of one person, one vote is not violated because each person is given only one vote per round.

Fair Elections for Alaska also asserts that instant runoff voting would lead to longer ballots, longer lines at the polls and lower voter turnout.

But Wagoner said voter turnout would increase because the elections would be more interesting, with smaller parties having a better chance at capturing votes.

Cheryl Jebe, president of the statewide chapter of the League of Women Voters, said the group opposes adopting the new voting system.

"This has come too sudden, too fast and with not enough discussion," Jebe said.

She said such a change also would be costly.

In a League statement, Jebe notes that in 1999, House Bill 141 by Rep. Pete Kott, an Eagle River Republican, which intended to implement a system of instant runoff voting, was estimated to cost $1.8 million.

That amount would pay to train staff and reprogram ballot machines.

Wagoner argues that the cost of reprogramming machines would be much less, and instituting instant runoff voting ultimately would save the state money by eliminating costly runoff elections.

"(T)he cost of a single 'delayed' two-round runoff for local elections in Anchorage, under the current law, is around $100,000. The cost of all such delayed runoffs could be eliminated (with instant runoff voting)," said a statement released by Wagoner. "Depending on how the state chooses to implement the new voting system the cost could be essentially zero."

Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at [email protected] .

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