Voters may decide on runoff plan

Petition has enough backers for ballot

Posted: Friday, July 07, 2000

Backers of what is called ``instant run-off'' voting say they have more than enough signatures to put the idea on a statewide ballot in 2002.

They're waiting to turn them in, however, partly because they want to hit more voters up for signatures at summer fairs, spreading the word about their cause.

``We want to get as many signatures as we possibly can,'' said Ken Jacobus, an attorney who's coordinating the petition drive.

There's no rush. It's too late to get the issue on this fall's ballot, and the group has until October to get its work done in time for the 2002 ballot.

The group has ``probably close to'' 35,000 signatures, Jacobus said, and just 22,716 are required to place an initiative on the ballot.

Instant run-off, also called preferential voting, would work like this: Voters faced with multiple candidates for an office would rank their choices, instead of picking just one.

If no one received a majority of the votes cast, the candidate receiving the fewest number of votes would be eliminated from the running. Those who had voted for that losing candidate would have their votes reassigned to their second-choice candidate.

That process would continue until one candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote.

Supporters say that would provide a clearer mandate for a winning candidate's position, unlike the current system in which candidates can take office with support of fewer than 50 percent of the voters.

``The bottom line is it will ensure and provide for a majority vote in Alaska,'' said Chip Wagoner, Republican National Committeeman for Alaska.

The three primary sponsors of the initiative represent three political parties in Alaska -- the Republicans, the Green Party and the Alaskan Independence Party.

Republicans could benefit from the change because they often split the conservative vote with candidates from minor conservative parties, such as the Alaskan Independence and Libertarian parties.

The small parties could benefit because under the current system voters hesitate to cast ballots for small-party candidates because they fear wasting their vote on a candidate who doesn't have a chance of winning, Wagoner said.

Democrats oppose the change. Chris Cooke, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said it would be an expensive, unnecessary change that has not been tried in any other state in the country.

``I don't know that you'll get any more satisfactory outcomes under this system than under the current system,'' he said, noting that a candidate who receives more first-choice votes than any other could lose out to a candidate who most voters ranked as their second choice or lower.

He also questioned the fairness of the system.

``The people who vote for the lowest vote-getters ... are getting their votes counted two or three times, whereas other people who vote for one of the two top contenders get their votes counted only once,'' Cooke said.

Wagoner said the system does not violate one-person, one-vote requirements.

The system is used in Australia and London and by some municipalities and school districts in the United States, although no other states have adopted the system, Jacobus said.

Estimates are it would cost $150,000 to 200,000 for new software to make the change, Wagoner said. State officials were unsure of the cost.

The initiative would not affect candidates for governor in the general election. There are legal arguments that changing the way the governor is elected requires a constitutional amendment, and the constitution can't be changed through the initiative process. Jacobus said the sponsors did not want to put the initiative in legal jeopardy by including the governor.

However, he is part of a group that intends to propose a separate initiative applying instant run-off voting to the governor's race.

The soonest the instant runoff measure could go to voters is 2002, unless there's a special statewide election held in 2001 on another matter. Breeze said it's not entirely clear whether the measure would be on the primary or general election ballot in 2002.

The Legislature could keep the instant run-off measure off the ballot by enacting a substantially similar law. Sponsors hope lawmakers will do that.

Efforts to get such a bill passed during the last legislative session failed.

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