My Turn: Preferential voting costly, complicated

Posted: Friday, August 09, 2002

As if the new closed primary voting system won't be enough to thoroughly complicate Alaska elections, a largely untested voting process that threatens drastic changes to the way we vote will appear on this August's primary election ballot.

Ballot Measure 1 proposes that Alaska institute "preferential" voting for all state and federal offices except governor and lieutenant governor. Under this system, instead of electing candidates based on who gets the most votes, period, preferential voting would use a tricky system of ranked votes and elimination rounds to elect only politicians who receive a majority vote.

After even a casual glance at the issue, it's clear that preferential voting would be a very bad idea. For starters, it's way too complicated. In a preferentially decided election, you would have the option of voting for up to five candidates per race in order of preference. If no candidate received 50 percent of the vote, the lowest vote getter would be defeated, and the votes of the people who supported him would be automatically go to their second choices. However, you would not be required to vote for more than one contender. This means that if you approve of only one candidate and do not want to support any others, other voters who choose to rank three of four candidates may have their votes counted more than yours.

If the preferential voting process seems complicated, the results it can produce are just as bad. Supporters of the ballot measure claim that since the system requires election by a majority, more people will be happy with election outcomes. But preferential voting builds a "majority" by combining people's second, third, and even fourth choices. This can result in the election of candidates who would normally finish second, third or fourth. In a situation like this, the only really happy person would be the "preferentially" elected politician entering office under a banner reading "The People's Second Choice."

The evils of preferential voting would be especially troublesome in Alaska's many isolated communities. For example, if preferential voting were adopted in Alaska, the state would have to pay for a massive education campaign to inform voters of exactly how the system works. In this regard, Alaska's rural communities would suffer from the lack of more widespread media coverage enjoyed by voters in urban areas.

In addition, many isolated communities continue to hand-count elections and do not have the machines that would be necessary to make preferential voting work. The cost of buying these machines, added to the other expenses such as voter education, increased election worker training and payments, and ballot printing that are associated with preferential voting, was estimated at $1.8 million when the state Legislature considered - and ultimately rejected - the issue in 1999.

Alaska voters have many good reasons to reject preferential voting. Its cost, complexity, and questionable method of counting votes are each in themselves sufficient reasons to explain why the Legislature rejected it, and why no other states use it. What we don't have is a single good reason to adopt it. We already have a time-tested, reliable voting process. Let's keep it as simple and user-friendly as possible.

Georgianna Lincoln is a Democrat and state senator from Rampart.

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