James and Claudia Criss of Juneau testify Tuesday during a House State Affairs Committee meeting in opposition to a bill that would repeal ranked choice voting and open primaries in Alaska. Although recent statewide polls show a slight majority of respondents favor repealing the voting method used for the first time in the state during the 2022 election, about three-fourths of people testifying Tuesday favored keeping the system. Rep. Sarah Vance, a Homer Republican who sponsored the bill, is in the far rear center watching the proceedings. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

James and Claudia Criss of Juneau testify Tuesday during a House State Affairs Committee meeting in opposition to a bill that would repeal ranked choice voting and open primaries in Alaska. Although recent statewide polls show a slight majority of respondents favor repealing the voting method used for the first time in the state during the 2022 election, about three-fourths of people testifying Tuesday favored keeping the system. Rep. Sarah Vance, a Homer Republican who sponsored the bill, is in the far rear center watching the proceedings. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Will elections bills get a vote this session?

Repeal of ranked choice voting appears doomed to defeat, far-ranging procedural changes still viable

It’s not an election year, but state lawmakers are contending with polarizing topics in something of an “election week” that seeks drastic changes in the voting booth as the session nears an end.

A top priority for some legislators — and of public interest, based on the volume of testimony — is overturning the ranked choice voting and open primaries used for the first time last year, resulting in what is generally considered a more moderate field of winning candidates. A House bill doing that has essentially no chance of passage due to Senate opposition — leaving the fate of ranked choice up to a ballot initiative petition now circulating — but a Senate bill making a number of more modest changes in registration and tallying votes is feasible before lawmakers face their next campaigns a year from now.

Several other election-related bills introduced this session, which among other things restrict individual campaign donations and award all of the state’s electoral votes to the national popular vote winner in the U.S. presidential election, appear to have little traction as the current session nears its scheduled May 17 adjournment.

A hearing this week on the bill overturning ranked choice voting was among a handful of meetings this session where the phone lines for online testimony were at capacity, which combined with the two-hour meeting limit meant many people’s opinions went unheard. But those who did testify and/or submitted comments in writing offered opinions as wide ranging as the candidate field in last year’s special primary to fill Alaska’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, in which 48 candidates were on the ballot.

“The No. 1 issue that I heard from Alaskans last year was simply to repeal rank choice voting,” said state Rep. Sarah Vance, a Homer Republican who sponsored House Bill 4, before testimony was heard Tuesday by the House State Affairs Committee. “This one issue rose above the conversation about (education funding) and the Permanent Fund dividend.”

Polarized polls

Observers nationwide praised the process and its outcomes, and a study released last month by the McKinley Research Group states 48% of respondents said they had a better selection of candidates to choose from compared 24% percent who said the selection was worse. But Vance said current polls show a majority of respondents want to repeal ranked choice voting and the 44% general election turnout was the lowest recorded in state history.

A poll by Ivan Moore of Alaska Survey Research released Wednesday shows respondents favor repealing ranked choice voting 53.5% to 46.5%, almost identical results to a similar poll in January. A recent Dittman Research poll found a similar 51% of respondents favor a repeal.

Of particular note, Moore wrote in a summary of his results, conservatives overwhelmingly favored a repeal 91% to 9%.

But the pollster, who in social media messages has voiced support for rank choice voting, did offer a spin on that preference when releasing this week’s results.

“Things have gotten no better for the pro-RCV side in the last three months, despite the expenditure of advertising dollars,” he wrote in a Twitter message.

A different set of numbers was cited during Tuesday’s public testimony by James Criss, a Juneau resident who spoke at the committee’s conference table alongside his wife Claudia, noting he’s voted in every statewide election for the past 40 years. He said recent state figures show 57.47% of registered voters identify as nonpartisan or unaffiliated, about 24% are Republicans and 13% are Democrats.

“I find that ranked choice voting is straightforward, easy to understand and offers me a meaningful way to participate in government,” he said. “Diverting back to the old partisan politics way of voting in the primaries would severely limit Alaskans’ participation in our democracy.”

Some Alaskans supporting the bill said part of their reason is a lot of campaign money from outside the state was spent when voters narrowly passed the ranked choice voting measure in 2020. Another reason cited is people who didn’t select candidates beyond a first choice essentially got bypassed when election officials tallied second- and third-choice votes until one candidate in each race had a majority of ballots cast.

“It disenfranchises voters,” said Mickey Barker, a Sitka resident. “There were thousands of votes that were thrown out.”

Among the reasons political analysts in Alaska and elsewhere generally praised ranked choice voting was its “moderating” effect in selecting winners, notably Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola defeating former Republican Gov. Sarah Palin, and Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski retaining her seat against Trump-backed challenger Kelly Tshibaka. That fueled intense public testimony on both sides Tuesday. One reason that happened with Peltola in particular is voters for her two main Republicans challenges, Palin and Nick Begich III, declined to select anybody beyond their first-choice candidate.

A praiseworthy “moderating” example within Alaska is current state Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel, an Anchorage Republican who lost her seat after a decade in office to a conservative challenge in 2020, then regained her seat under ranked choice voting in 2022, said Rob Welton, a Douglas resident testifying against the bill.“Under the old system Cathy Giessel was bounced out of office for the unpardonable sin of reaching across the aisle to craft a durable fiscal solution for this state,” he said. “She was primaried out. After the (ranked choice) system came into effect she was able to get back in office. If I had to put the reason why this should not move it’d be two words: Cathy Giessel. She’s doing a great job in the Senate and that’s because of ranked choice voting.”

But the so-called moderation that allowed Murkowski to retain her seat was one of the biggest points of ire for some residents favoring a repeal of ranked choice voting. Accusations she was part of a conspiracy to force the system on voters through well-funded outside groups were part of a litany of discredited conspiracy allegations voiced by some people testifying in favor of the bill.

“You look at movies like ‘2,000 Mules’ and it shows people just stuffing ballot boxes,” said Bill Wise, a Valdez resident. “There’s other testimony, the video of extra ballots, closing down and recounting and, you know, voilà, all of a sudden the vote changes. You got Dominion voting machines. It’s been proven that thing can be swayed, and here in Alaska we used Dominion voting.”

Testimony on the bill was halted after two hours. State Rep. Laddie Shaw, an Anchorage Republican, said additional testimony will be scheduled next week.

However, due to the near-certainty the bill won’t advance in the state Senate, several people speaking in favor of the bill also mentioned supporting a ballot initiative seeking the repeal and a return to closed party primaries. The petitioning group Alaskans For Honest Elections states on its website it has collected about 14,000 of the 27,000 signatures needed to place the question on the ballot, and has until February to turn the necessary number into the state Division of Elections.

The question would likely appear on the 2024 general election ballot if validated, which might thwart the hopes of politicians such as Tshibaka — among the highest profile backers of the initiative — who is seen as a potential challenger to Peltola next year.

Other election legislation

Much like moderation helped many candidates in last year’s election, the same approach in a Senate bill making a series of changes in voting procedures might give it a chance of prevailing before next year’s primaries.

Senate Bill 138 advanced past the Senate State Affairs Committee on Tuesday, not entirely surprising since the committee is also sponsoring the bill introduced April 25. The bill’s sponsor statement notes voters are not currently notified of errors in absentee ballots until after the election is certified, resulting in about 4.55% of ballots cast in the 2022 special primary election last year being rejected.

“Therefore SB 138 establishes a ballot tracking system and a ballot curing process,” the statement notes. “The ballot curing process requires the Division (of Elections) to notify voters if the signature on their ballot does not match the one on their registration.”

The bill also requires election officials to start counting absentee ballots starting at least seven days before election day and start releasing tallies at 8 p.m. that day, addressing concerns expressed by many residents and candidates about the long wait for results. The bill also tightens and clarifies residency requirements for voting, ensures regular updates of voter registration lists, allows voters to correct errors on ballots after they are submitted and track by-mail ballots after being sent.

Vance, who along with supporting the ranked choice voting repeal is backing a bill that would allow elections officials more leeway to revoke voter registrations and remote inactive voters from registration lists more frequently, told the Anchorage Daily News this week she is willing to consider the Senate’s wider-reaching bill if it reaches the House Judiciary Committee she chairs.

Also moved from the Senate State Affairs Committee on Tuesday is SB 61 by Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, which would have Alaska join 15 other states and the District of Columbia that have pledged to have their Electoral College members vote for the popular vote winner of the presidential election. The bill has no further committee referrals, meaning a floor vote is possible during the coming days.

Wielechowski and other supporters argue the votes of Alaskans are currently meaningless in presidential election due to the state’s mere three electoral votes that are almost certain to go to the Republican candidate, meaning viable candidates have no reason to pay attention to the state during campaigns.

Among the bill’s opponents is University of Alaska Anchorage Chancellor Sean Parnell, a former Republican governor of Alaska who argued in written testimony it would nullify the majority preference of state voters by allowing them to be overwhelmed by the far greater total of the multi-state collective. But he also emphasized concerns about what he called a “critical technical defect of the compact.”

“There is no official national vote count that can be used for this compact,” he wrote. “No national agency, commission, or official will produce a certified vote total for every presidential candidate, and the compact does not create an agency, commission or official that will do so. Instead the compact leaves it to the chief election official of each member state, acting independently, to obtain vote totals from other states and tabulate them to determine which candidate received the most votes nationally.”

• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com.

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