Four of the six political parties in Alaska endorse a state ballot measure to allow voters to pick candidates in order of preference. In the Aug. 27 primary, voters will decide if they agree with "instant runoff voting."
Also called "preferential voting," the measure would allow voters to cast their ballots for up to five candidates in order of preference in elections for the state Legislature, the U.S. president and vice president, and the U.S. senators and representative from Alaska. The system excludes the races for governor and lieutenant governor. In primary elections, voters would rank candidates only within one party.
If no candidate receives a majority of the first-choice votes, then the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. That candidate's second-choice votes are distributed then to the remaining candidates for another round of tabulations. This process continues until one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote.
Although instant runoff voting is used in some local elections throughout the nation, if voters pass the ballot measure Alaska would become the first state to adopt the system.
Republicans, Greens, Libertarians and the Alaskan Independence Party have endorsed the new voting scheme, although not all of their members support it. The Republican Moderate Party does not take positions on individual issues, but Ray Metcalfe, party chairman and state House candidate for District 29 in Anchorage, supports the initiative.
The Democratic Party and the Alaska League of Women Voters oppose the measure, saying it would change a system that doesn't need fixing.
Proponents of the measure argue that it would establish a majority consensus and more accurately mirror what the voters want from their elected officials.
Cheryl Jebe, president of the Alaska League of Women Voters, said the league is a nonpartisan group whose main goal is informing voters on issues. She said not enough people are educated on instant runoff voting to make it a statewide law.
Jebe also said instant runoff voting confuses voters, and the system would violate the one-person, one-vote principle.
"It's complicated and it seems to try to fix a problem that doesn't exist in Alaska," Jebe said.
Jim Sykes, Green Party candidate for the U.S. Senate and co-sponsor of the initiative, said the League of Women Voters has not given the issue proper consideration.
"I am a supporter of the League of Women Voters ... but they definitely blew it on this issue by not doing the normal in-depth study," Sykes said.
He noted that League of Women Voters' chapters in Washington and Vermont have conducted extensive studies on instant runoff voting and support the system. As a result, 90 percent of Vermont municipalities have adopted instant runoff voting, Sykes said.
He argued that it would eliminate vote-splitting and so-called spoiler candidates.
"The other thing it does is it eliminates mudslinging," Sykes said, noting that candidates are less likely to attack their opponents for fear of alienating voters that could provide second-choice votes.
But Tammy Troyer, executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party, said there is no evidence to show that elections would be any cleaner. And although the Republican Party supports the measure, Troyer said it is not accepted by many Republicans.
In 1999, House Bill 141 by Rep. Pete Kott, an Eagle River Republican, would have implemented instant runoff voting but stalled in the House Finance Committee.
"They couldn't pass it in the Legislature because a lot of Republicans were opposed to it," Troyer said.
Randy Ruedrich, chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, said no party position ever has unanimous support. He said instant runoff voting would regenerate interest in voting because many people would feel their vote is not being wasted.
Troyer said that although voters could cast their ballots for third-party candidates without fear of losing their vote, those parties likely would not improve their chances of getting a candidate elected.
"The numbers that I've run show that no third-party candidate would be elected using this system," Troyer said.
But Mark Chryson, chairman of the Alaskan Independence Party, said many people don't support AIP candidates for fear of throwing their vote away.
"You're going to see how many people actually agree with us once we get instant runoff voting in place," Chryson said.
Al Anders, membership chairman for the Alaska Libertarians and candidate for lieutenant governor, said that although the proposed system may or may not help Libertarians get elected it will force major-party candidates to listen to other parties' concerns.
"You don't have to get elected to win," Anders said, noting that getting Republicans and Democrats to adopt the issues of third-party candidates is also a victory.
Troyer said the initiative effort is being run by money from outside Alaska.
Alaskans for Voters Rights, the group pushing for the initiative, has received donations of $37,941. About $21,000 of that has come from a Washington, D.C., group called the Center for Voting and Democracy, which has pushed instant runoff voting initiatives throughout the country.
Steven Hill of the Center for Voting and Democracy said when a candidate wins without a clear majority of the vote it undermines the legitimacy of the system as well as of the candidate.
He said one of the most egregious examples was in the Alaska governor's race in 1994, when Democratic candidate Tony Knowles won with about 41 percent of the vote in a race against Republican Jim Campbell. In that election Alaskan Independence Party candidate Jack Coghill took 9 percent of the vote, siphoning thousands of conservative votes from Campbell.
In 1998, Knowles won re-election with about 39 percent of the vote.
Hill said there is interest among supporters of the ballot initiative to extend the voting system to the governor's and lieutenant governor's races if the measure is approved by voters on Tuesday.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.