Opening up Alaska's primary system would lead to better ballots

Posted: Tuesday, September 07, 2010

In a rare outcome for Alaska's politics, voters were given a slate of newcomers to consider for a seat in the U.S. Senate. According to Public Policy Polling, Republican nominee Joe Miller has an eight-point lead over Democrat Scott McAdams.

The poll goes on to speculate that if Lisa Murkowski replaced Libertarian candidate Fredrick Haase on the ballot, McAdams finishes third, even farther behind Miller. It seems the election many Alaska voters would like to see is a runoff between Miller and Murkowski.

Of course, a lot could change between now and November. The only thing the primary proved is that polls aren't always a reliable indicator of election results. Every pollster in the country expected Murkowski to easily beat Miller. What they failed to predict was that only the far right was motivated enough to vote.

That scenario isn't likely to play out in November because Alaska has a history of high voter turnout for general elections. But in the primary, more than 70 percent of the state's registered voters stayed home. That dismal showing is the main reason Miller upset Murkowski.

Miller may be touting anti-incumbent rage as a significant factor, but incumbency wasn't a real burden for Murkowski. She enjoys a 50 percent approval rating among Republican and independent voters. And her eight years in the Senate hardly qualify her as an entrenched politician like Congressman Don Young, who easily cruised to a primary win despite serving for 37 years.

So how did Murkowski fail to get her supporters to vote in the primary? Aside from too many voters trusting polls that predicted she would easily win, it may well be a lot of voters dislike our semi-closed primary. After all, almost 60 percent of the electorate isn't registered with either of the major parties. That figure lines up well with the widespread disapproval independents hold for both the Republicans and Democrats in Congress. So it seems reasonable most people would prefer a fully open primary.

Furthermore, many Democrats are realists who understand this is a state dominated by Republicans. That may not be the only reason two-thirds of them didn't vote; it's also possible many would have crossed party lines to support a moderate voice in an election they had pretty much conceded to the GOP. That's especially true given 50 percent of Democrats have a favorable view of Murkowski.

Miller made a lot of noise about Murkowski not being conservative enough. In an open primary that strategy would have backfired, because more Alaskans consider themselves either liberal or moderate than conservative. Instead, he benefited from the inability of some Democrats to vote for Murkowski rather than their token candidate. And the current primary system could have discouraged independents in the middle ground from voting at all if their preferred candidates in all the races were split up on the two ballots.

A completely open primary in a state dominated by independent voters would serve the people better. Murkowski and Miller could have been debating their ideologies alongside McAdams, Haase, and two lesser known Democrats. Wouldn't that be a better platform for us all to be able to understand where each candidate stands?

We could take it a step further and make the general election a runoff between the top two primary vote getters, even if they're from the same party. So what if they're both Republicans? Our democracy isn't about the right of the Democratic Party to have a candidate on every final ballot.

Still, we're left with the reality that only one in 10 eligible voters across the state determined Murkowski wasn't worthy of another term in office. That's all it took for Miller to nudge her off the Republican ticket. And McAdams and Haase have a spot on November's ballot even though they respectively collected a meager 3 percent and 1 percent support of all registered voters.

What's best for Alaska now is not a slate of senate candidates chosen by a broken primary system. Senator Murkowski should enter the race rather than concede to Miller's appeal for party unity. Ironically, if she does run, she might be better prepared to represent the independently minded majority of Alaskans rather than be influenced by the rigidity of GOP conservatives now paralyzing our government.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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