The Frontier State Tries Its Hand At Reform

Assistant Opinion Editor Patrick Healy discusses wolves and political parties. Sorry, that was redundant.

From Mike Gravel to their oil dividend, the coldest state has some of the coolest people and ideas in America. (Unsplash)

Patrick Healy, Asst. Opinion Editor

How much does it take for a Republican to become a liberal? 500 miles. At least, that’s how far away Alaska is from the next closest U.S. state. In the home of petroleum and Sarah Palin, another thing seems to keep popping up in the cold semi-exclave of the United States: progressive politics. 

Alaska hasn’t had a Democratic governor in nearly two decades, but Alaskan Republicans are apparently so far away from everyone else that they must have forgotten to pursue the policies of their contiguous conservative comrades. Instead, the closet progressives of the 49th state have pursued electoral reform that, on its face, would make big-city liberals blush.

In a 2020 referendum, Alaskan voters replaced standard party primaries with a nonpartisan blanket primary in which the top four vote-getters move on to a general election determined by ranked-choice voting. Candidates can list a party preference. “Measure 2” also imposed disclosure requirements on out-of-state donations and donations above $2,000. 

Nonpartisan? Ranked-choice? AND disclosure requirements? That sounds like a reformer’s dream. It’s a step forward if the goal is to make candidates friendlier towards each other. But it’s a step backward for true transparency and another step backward for the reform movement. 

 “Nonpartisan” conveys a utopian image where we put party politics behind us and focus on the common good. I’m unconvinced. It didn’t work when the Founders tried it, and it doesn’t work anywhere else. Parties exist for a reason. Even if those supposedly “nonpartisan” candidates truly do believe in their nonpartisan-ness, undoubtedly their beliefs skew towards one party or another. 

Plus, candidates can list a party preference without gaining the approval of that party through a primary, convention, or other ideological test. Most people can barely remember what each party stands for, and now they have to remember four random people’s views who may or may not reflect those of the party they may or may not have listed. 

The only thing that kicking formalized parties off the ballot does is make the process less transparent. It makes politics even more of a name-recognition and funding contest, and breaks the assumed contract that should exist between a voter and an affiliated candidate — vote Democrat/Republican/Green/Libertarian, and you get X stance on gun reform, Y stance on abortion, and Z stance on climate change.

Parties provide a structure for politics. Our two-party structure is weak, but the answer isn’t to knock the whole thing down — the answer is to stabilize the foundation by adding more parties. Party politics are wolfish, but running away only makes things worse. 

You deal with parties the way you deal with wolves — accept their presence, recognize their usefulness, and respect their boundaries. Covering a wolf in a sheepskin doesn’t make it a sheep; hiding or disguising partisan views doesn’t make a candidate nonpartisan.

The two-party system poses one problem: the packs aren’t big enough to fit everyone. Nonpartisan politics poses another: it forces pack-oriented voters to live without packs. Parties, like packs, are natural, and they serve society well when all alpha wolves/ideologies get their own pack and they can mark their territory. 

Alaskans have diagnosed the correct problem — the two-party system — but administered the wrong solution. Instead of no parties, we need more parties. However, even if we acknowledge parties, we need a proper system to empower them. Ranked-choice voting is not that system, at least not in the Alaskan form. 

Alaskans for Better Elections, the sponsor of the changes, is obsessed with the difference between a plurality and a majority; while they accurately say they ranked-choice voting ensures that someone wins a majority, they don’t see that their distinction lacks a difference. Making a plurality a majority just gives a veneer of legitimacy to the same politicians who would have won in the old system. 

The problem isn’t that winners too often win pluralities instead of majorities — it’s that we only care about pluralities and majorities in the first place. Chopping up the electorate into arbitrary districts and then arbitrarily deciding to seat only the person with the most number of votes in each district, regardless of the margin, is a terrible way to distribute representation. If the goal is to seat third parties, who by definition don’t have either a plurality or majority, then the only option is to expand or to eliminate districts. 

Ranked-choice voting (RCV) has been the poster child of electoral reform for a while now. It’s mainly advertised as a way to reduce tension and negative campaigning. In RCV, you rank candidates 1-5, and if your preferred candidate has the least number of votes after each round of voting, your vote moves to your #2, then #3, and so on. It ensures that a vote for a third party candidate doesn’t take a vote away from the voter’s preferred big-party candidate; it tries to remove the “spoiler effect.”

RCV isn’t necessarily a bad system, but it is when used in single-member districts (SMD). The key to using RCV is to have multi-member districts (MMD). With SMD (yes, unfortunate initials), third parties don’t stand a chance no matter how the ballots are tabulated because SMDs only seat the most populous party. 

The reality is that third parties can rack up decent numbers of spots at the top of voters’ ballots, but the two big parties collect all of the #2 and #3 spots from supporters of all third parties on their side (for Democrats, left-wing voters, for Republicans, right-wing voters). RCV-SMD is just rearranging chairs on a sinking two-party system. Using nonpartisan labels makes everyone blind while they drown.

When used in multi-member districts, where multiple candidates are elected in each district, RCV can elect a fairly proportional slate of candidates. It works this way in Ireland; each district elects three to five members, with the result of three big parties and six small ones represented in Dáil Éireann, their lower house. In America, the Democrats and Republicans would usually finish #1 and #2, but the most popular third parties in each district could be elected with them. 

RCV-MMD is a bit clumsy, but it produces results similar to proportional representation (PR), which is the optimal system if the goal is to help third parties. These Alaskan reformers, bent on making politics more civil, should be thrilled to know MMD and PR encourage parties to behave in elections so they don’t offend a potential coalition partner in government. 

Alaskan reformers have promised their voters the benefits of PR elections but given them a toothless, faceless RCV instead. The state will be used as a litmus test of reform movements in general, and its certain failure will hurt future stabs at reform. Wasting the post-Trump swell of support for reform does a disservice to Alaskans and Americans alike. 

Putting a smiling mask on politicians hides their true face and deceives us into thinking we’ve conquered a problem the rest of the world hasn’t. If we peel back the glistening skin of their RCV elections, we will still find the rotten core of two-party politics. Adding more candidates and stripping them of party affiliation makes government less transparent. Parties identify politicians, binding them closer to voter expectations instead of maverick or lobbyist-influenced decisions. 

Measure 2 allows voters to register symbolic disapproval of the big parties and slap big donors on the wrist. That’s not good enough. Big parties and big corporations deal chiefly in power and money, not public opinion, so they don’t care about a little public shaming as long as they keep winning and lobbying. 

Democrats and Republicans don’t really care about their popularity; the spoiler effect protects gerrymandered candidates, each party justifies the existence of the other, and both are more than happy to fight for the “lesser evil” mantle. And it’s good to track political contributions, but how much flak do companies like Google, Boeing, and Pfizer catch for their tracked lobbying? 

Ignoring globally tried and true methods, foregoing party identification, and requiring disclosure of certain campaign contributions — this is distinctly American reform. Our reform has to be unique. We can’t accept that we fall into ideological camps. Campaign contributions and lobbying — what many countries simply call corruption — are known in America as “speech,” and we document it so we can call it legal. 

Measure 2 would have made for a good martyr. It could have had its moment in the sun, served as a reminder that most of us want a competent third party or five, and paved the way for actual reform. But now its piddling provisions are a measuring stick of all reform, and for that the cause of change is worse off.

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