Alaska may have shown a way to make our political system reward rather than punish moderation, open the system to new voices and encourage civility.
Mike Condray and Jeremy Mayer | January 18, 2021
Who would have thought that the best answer to America’s toxic polarization, the biggest problem in our political system, would come from Alaska?
The horrific images of mobs storming our Capitol has led to politicians not noted for moderation to speak of “turning down the heat” and de-toxifying our polarized politics. However, almost all the structural incentives that encourage politicians to keep “turning up the heat” remain.
Alaska may have shown a way to make our political system reward rather than punish moderation, open the system to new voices and encourage civility: Top Four primary elections and ranked choice voting.
Alaska voters passed these reforms in November. Strikingly, we may already have witnessed a glimpse of how they could empower political figures to step away from “win or die” partisan warfare between polarized tribes.
A year ago, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, stated that President Donald Trump was “shameful and wrong” but still voted to acquit in his first impeachment trial. Last week, she bluntly stated that he should go, with barely a week left in office.
True, the attack on the Capitol was far worse than the offenses that led to Trump’s first impeachment, but Alaska’s electoral reforms also give Murkowski less fear of being “primaried” out of office in her 2022 re-election.
The fear of Trump’s base has kept most Republicans in Congress in line. Off the record, many mock Trump or express fears about his actions, but in public, they’ve been remarkably loyal.
The few who have spoken out have sometimes paid for it with their political careers. The fear of a Trump-backed primary opponent helped drive 138 House Republicans to support Trump’s lies about the election.
Given that most incumbents easily win reelection, GOP representatives often have much more to fear from a rightwing primary challenger than a general election race against a Democrat. So they become more extreme in their support for Trump to prevent an angry Tweet from ending their career.
The storming of the Capitol is a dire warning of where such extremism is taking us. Although there is no “silver bullet” solution, Alaska’s reforms could play a major role in de-escalating partisan warfare by changing political incentives.
All candidates share the ballot
Instead of separate, party-only primary elections, future Alaska primaries will have all candidates on a single ballot. The four candidates who receive the most votes advance to the general election. This makes it much harder for partisan extremists to beat a moderate in the primary. Appealing to moderates and even disaffected Democrats will be a viable strategy.
General election voters will then list those top four candidates in ranked order of preference. All voters are initially counted for their first choice.
If any of the four have more than 50% of the vote, that candidate wins the election. If no candidate has a majority, the last place candidate is eliminated. But votes for the last place candidate are not thrown away; their votes are shifted to support their second ranked choice on voters’ ballots.
Vote counts are immediately recalculated, and if any of the three remaining candidates has a majority, the election is done. If not, the third place candidate wins, votes are reassigned and whoever gets more votes in the final count wins.
Ranked choice voting has been used smoothly in Australia for about 100 years. Its use means third party candidates can win elections and voters who prefer third party candidates and policies are not “throwing away their votes” or worse, effectively helping the candidate and party they least prefer.
Negative campaigning is discouraged
Ranked choice also gives candidates an incentive to avoid negative campaigning. Being vicious in a multi-candidate race is a lousy way to convince other candidates’ supporters to list you as their second choice. And being a moderate who listens to the other side will increase the probability that you will be listed second or third by many voters.
Alaska’s reforms mean that Murkowski has helped her reelection chances in 2022, unlike other Republicans who are still afraid they will be punished for disloyalty to Trump.
Alaska has shown a way to reward rather than punish leaders who reject extremism. That kind of change is desperately needed before more lives — or even our republic —are lost in a death spiral of escalating political warfare.
Mike Condray is an advanced doctoral candidate at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Jeremy Mayer is an associate professor at George Mason.
Read the article on USA Today