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Alaska Voters Mull Instant Runoff

By Mike Chambers
Published August 24th 2002
Voters get to decide this week whether Alaska will become the first state with instant runoff elections, something supports say would give third-party candidates a fighting a chance.

The initiative, appearing on Tuesday's gubernatorial primary ballots, would replace Alaska's majority-vote [sic. "plurality vote"] election with preferential voting similar to the method used in San Francisco city elections and to elect Lord Mayor of London and members of the Australian House.

Voters would pick their choices for an office in descending order from most favored to least favored.

If no candidate received more than 50 percent of the first-choice vote, then the lowest vote getter would be defeated. Election officials then would count the second choice votes of voters who picked the losing candidate and add those numbers to the totals for the remaining candidates.

The process would continue until one candidate received more than 50 percent.

"Right now, people are afraid to vote for anybody other than the Republican and the Democrat," said Mark Chryson, chairman of the Alaskan Independence Party. "This is to show you that you will not be throwing your vote away."

The measure is opposed by the Alaska League of Women Voters, in part because it has drawn so little public debate, said league President Cheryl Jebe of Juneau. She said the measure will be costly, confusing and complex.

"It appears to compromise the well-established principle of one person, one vote, established by the United States Supreme Court," she said. Alaska has six recognized political parties and a long history of independent voters. Besides the Alaskan Independence Party and Democrats and Republicans, the state recognizes Libertarians and the Green and Republican Moderate parties.

Alaska has never held an instant runoff election but has had numerous elections in which the margin of victory was within just a few percentage points.

Former Gov. Jay Hammond won his party's nomination in 1978 over Walter J. Hickel by 98 votes ­ less than one vote per precinct. Current House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz first won election to an Anchorage House seat by 28 votes in 1996.

Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles ends two terms having never won a majority of the popular vote. He was first elected in 1994 by just more than one vote per precinct over Republican Jim Campbell.

Nearly 52 percent of the state's registered voters classify themselves as undeclared, nonpartisan or members of political parties other than the six recognized state parties, according to the Alaska Division of Elections. The state has 114,357 registered Republicans and 71,597 registered Democrats.

The instant runoff would include state and federal elections but exempt the race for governor and lieutenant governor, where the Alaska Constitution requires that the winner collect only most of the votes cast.

The system would give voters more candidate choices and eliminate the need for primaries and costly runoff elections, said Ken Jacobus, a Republican attorney and petition organizer.

"It makes sure that every one who gets elected has a majority of the voter support," he said.