Don't change election rules

Posted: Thursday, April 27, 2000

The following editorial was published in the April 18 edition of the Anchorage Daily News:

Here's what the Alaska Constitution says about the election of the governor.

``The governor shall be chosen by the qualified voters of the state at a general election. The candidate receiving the greatest number of votes shall be governor.''

Plain. Simple. Direct.

But not good enough for the Republican majority in the state Senate.

They recently passed a constitutional amendment that would require the governor to win election by a majority of the voters. If nobody obtains a majority, the top two candidates will engage in a runoff.

Putting a constitutional amendment before the voters is serious business. The constitution should be altered only when advocates have made the case that an amendment is essential.

This proposal has had no public discussion and one floor debate. It never had a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. There has been no serious debate of costs, although the Knowles administration estimates the bill at $750,000.

All the senators have to offer in defense of radically overturning how we select the governor is an endless string of appeals to ``democracy'' and ``majority rule.''

You will notice that they did not apply this logic to themselves. For all their invocation of ``majority rule,'' senators still will be elected by pluralities.

Folks, the system is not broken, and we don't need to fix it. The Constitution has worked fine since statehood - except in the minds of some Republicans.

Was Jay Hammond a poorer governor because he received 47 percent of the vote in the 1974 election? Was Wally Hickel unsuccessful because he won 38 percent in 1990? Was Tony Knowles a better chief executive than either of them because he claimed 51 percent of the vote in 1998?

As a practical matter, the runoff would be a mess. It would take place sometime between Christmas and late January. Perfect campaigning weather - 50 below zero in Fairbanks, 70 below on the North Slope. Planes unable to fly, ice fog everywhere, voters unwilling to leave their houses. Now that makes for real person-to-person democracy.

Moreover, as Professor Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia said when told about this proposal, ``If you establish a 50 percent threshold, you guarantee you almost always will have a runoff. A longer campaign, more negative ads, more name calling, a lot more fund raising. Is that what Alaskans want?'' Instead of a campaign that runs from June to November, Alaskans will have a campaign from June to January.

Minnesota elected insurgent Jesse Ventura with 37 percent of the vote. Did the Republicans and Democrats call for a runoff law? No.

``His victory was heralded as celebration of an open process,'' said Lawrence Jacobs of the University of Minnesota. Minnesotans who disdain a World Wrestling Federation governor made the rational decision: Wait until next time.

Arizona required a runoff in the governor's race - briefly in the '90s. What happened? Once they tried it, Arizonans concluded the campaign was too lengthy, too expensive, and too wasteful of their time. They canned the runoff law.

``The bottom line,'' says Professor Thad Beyle of the University of North Carolina, ``is you are never sure what reform will bring. The Arizona example is a case in point. When people saw how the reform actually worked, they didn't want it.''

No other state has a runoff law requiring the governor to obtain 50 percent of the vote. We don't need one either.

This constitutional amendment is exactly what it looks like - crass partisan politics. The Republicans believe they will do better in the governor's race if a rematch is written into law.

This is a bad idea that serves no public purpose.

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