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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

In November, Alaskans voted by a narrow margin to overhaul their election process.

How might it help or hamper the state’s senior senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, who is up for reelection in 2022?

Greg Razo, Yup’ik, was a sponsor of the voter initiative that brought the changes. He supported Ballot Measure 2 for several reasons.

“First of all, it opened up the books so that we can see who is donating money to political campaigns so that there's no dark money coming in. Everybody has a fair playing field when we know who's paying for their candidacy,” Razo said.

It also opened up Alaska’s semi-closed primary process. In 2014 registered voters in Alaska were given a choice between three primary ballots. All registered voters could opt for a ballot that listed Democratic, Libertarian, Alaskan Independence and Independent candidates. Registered Republicans, nonpartisan, and undeclared voters could opt for a ballot listing only Republican candidates. The third ballot listed only ballot measures for voters who supported none of the candidates.

The new measure brought in the open primary. In legislative, gubernatorial and presidential races, now the top four winning candidates in the primary will go on to the general election.

“So when folks go and want to pick the best choice for particular seats, they can choose a Democrat, an Independent or a Republican. It's up to them. But there's no more playing kind of inside baseball with closed primaries,” Razo said.

The third change allows voters to rank candidates. If no one wins a majority of 50 percent plus 1, the lowest vote-getter is dropped. Their votes go to the second choice shown on their ballots, and so on until one candidate gets a majority.

“By allowing rank choice voting one, two, three, four kind of voting where everybody makes a decision at the ballot box, then we'll get the person that has the majority of support of all Alaskans,” Razo said. No longer can the person with the most votes but without a majority win.

“I think it's going to be a great test in our upcoming elections this year and next year,” Razo said.

Pictured: Senator Murkowski during oversight hearing on April 28, 2021

Murkowski is known as a moderate Republican. Alaska Natives are credited with helping her win re-election after she was knocked out of the race in the 2014 primary.

Among the many votes in which she followed the Republican party line, she voted for President Trump’s nominees for the U.S. Supreme Court and sided with the president on tax cuts.

In 2017, she voted against rescinding the Affordable Care Act, one of her votes that doesn’t sit well with more conservative voters.

A few days after the Jan. 6, 2021 failed insurrection, Murkowski called for Trump’s resignation. “I want him out,” Murkowksi told a Washington Post reporter. “He has caused enough damage.” Trump had won Alaska in the 2020 elections.

She also said, “I will tell you, if the Republican Party has become nothing more than the party of Trump, I sincerely question whether this is the party for me.”

In early April, the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC run by allies of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, endorsed Murkowski for re-election.

However, she might not be Republican enough for the state Republican Party. Its leaders voted to censure Murkowski for her impeachment vote.

After being acquitted in his second impeachment, Trump vowed to fight Murkowski’s re-election. Still, she has voted for a dozen of President Biden’s nominees for government positions.

How might the new election process play out in the 2022 election?

Murkowski first gained her seat in 2002 when her father Frank Murkowski, the newly elected governor of the state, appointed her to the Senate seat he had just vacated.

She won the 2004 election then in 2010, lost the Republican primary to Tea Party favorite Joe Miller.

Alaska Native regional corporations rallied behind her and quickly pulled together donations of more than a million dollars. The Republican Party backed Miller in the general election.

Murkowski ran as a write-in candidate, and became the first Senator to win as a write-in since 1954. In 2016, she won with 44 percent of the vote.

Now, Murkowski is again facing a challenger to her right.

Kelly Tshibaka, who has led the Alaska Department of Administration since early 2019, has also worked for the inspector general for the U.S. Postal Service, at the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice. She criticizes Murkowski as being out of touch with Alaskan voters. Tshibaka is a pro-Trump candidate, and has hired some of the former president’s former campaign staff.

Observers say the new election process will help Murkowski.

In a Feb. 18 story by Alaska Public Media’s Liz Ruskin for NPR, Alaska Survey Research pollster Ivan Moore said that while Murkowski would likely lose in a closed election because “on the conservative side, she’s now a pariah,” her impeachment vote could help her win under the new election system.

“Moore says Murkowski's vote to convict Trump greatly increases the odds that Democrats are going to select her as their No. 1 or 2, so he says it may actually help her politically,” Ruskin reported.

Alaska "I Voted Today" sticker with image of the Big Dipper and North Star from the state flag (File photo Indian Country Today)

Supporters have made claims about ranked choice voting saying it will reduce extreme partisanship and open the door for more moderate candidates. If it occurs, the effect is slight, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Election Lab researcher.

Jesse Clark, a Ph.D. candidate at MIT, conducted surveys and research on the only other state with ranked choice voting. Maine has held two elections using the new method.

Clark said, “I found that voting for non-major party candidates — which reformers tout as “sincere voting” instead of voting for a candidate simply due to their realistic chance of winning — was increased by 5 points among the respondents who were given the [ranked choice voting] ballot instead of the traditional ballot.”

Clark said ranked choice voting seems to boost non-major-party vote share. But, he said long-term effects on representation, policy making, or its use in executive elections may be impossible to determine.

“…as the research on election reform has demonstrated repeatedly, it is often impossible to predict the actual outcomes of election reforms (either by experts or those who advocate for or against them). As such, ranked-choice voting will need to be the subject of study in election science and political behavior for years to come,” Clark said. 

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