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Does Alaska Have a Solution for Our National Political Dysfunction?

It just might. The state’s new election system, combining nonpartisan primaries and instant-runoff general election voting, makes elections more competitive and encourages cooperative governance.

Mary Peltola
Mary Peltola (in yellow jacket), the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress, passes through the airport in her hometown of Bethel last September before flying to Washington, D.C., to be sworn in. Peltola, a Democrat, was elected to Alaska’s sole House seat under the state’s nonpartisan primary system and instant-runoff general election. (Katie Basile/Alaska Public Media)
The current chaos on Capitol Hill is a feature of electoral competitiveness — the lack thereof, that is — across the country. Two recent votes demonstrate this dynamic. Earlier this month, eight House Republicans from safely red districts ousted their party’s speaker for the first time in American history. None of those lawmakers needs to worry about losing a general election over the chaos they caused. Instead, they’re incentivized to cater to the sliver of donors and activists who are often decisive in their low-turnout primary elections.

By contrast, last week 20 Republicans from more-competitive districts, including seven in swing districts, refused to vote for Rep. Jim Jordan for speaker on the first ballot. These Republicans were making the calculation that voting for the Ohio congressman, an ardent Donald Trump supporter, election denier and, in the words of former GOP Speaker John Boehner, a “legislative terrorist,” would make it harder for them to win over moderate and independent voters in upcoming general elections.

A new study by our organization, the Unite America Institute, suggests a state-based solution to the nationwide problem of uncompetitive elections, not only for Congress but for every elective office. Under Alaska’s new nonpartisan primary system, all candidates, regardless of party, appear on a unified ballot. The top four finishers then advance to the general election, which is decided by an instant runoff — also known as ranked-choice voting.

After one election cycle using Alaska’s new electoral system, it appears to have dramatically intensified competition. In 2022, just 12 percent of general elections for the state Legislature were uncontested — half of the previous decade’s average. Meanwhile, the share of close general elections — decided by 10 percentage points or less — nearly doubled, from an average of 17 percent over the prior decade to 30 percent. Imagine how the U.S. House of Representatives would be different if elections were more competitive and gave a true majority of voters more power to hold their leaders accountable.

Alaska’s general elections were more dynamic even in cases where the winner triumphed by a larger margin. Same-party competition occurred in half of general elections — meaning either multiple Democrats or multiple Republicans ran against each other, and often against other candidates as well.

For example, in Alaska state House District 30, two Republicans and a Democrat faced off in the general election. After the first round of voting in this very conservative district, the two Republicans received 45 percent and 35 percent of the vote. The Democrat, Joy Mindiola, received 20 percent, was eliminated and in the instant runoff her supporters were reallocated based on their second choice. The Republican leader from the first round, Kevin McCabe, won with 56 percent of the vote after taking a larger share of the votes from his Democratic opponent.

What made this election more dynamic than a race between a Republican and a Democrat in a deep-red district? Following a standard partisan primary, the 20 percent of voters who supported Mindiola would have symbolically cast their single vote for her in the general election, knowing she would lose in a landslide to her Republican opponent. Under Alaska’s new system, those Democratic voters did much more than cast an expressive vote — they cast decisive votes. Through their ranked ballots, they decided which of the two Republicans would better represent them. These kinds of outcomes create a strong incentive for the Republican candidates to build a broader coalition of supporters.

As a result of more competitive and dynamic elections, the Unite America Institute finds that in 2022, a higher percentage of Alaskans (35 percent) cast “meaningful votes” than voters in any other state. From 2020 to 2022, meaningful participation increased by 12 percentage points. Meaningful votes are ballots cast in competitive elections that are not effectively pre-determined based on party affiliation alone. For example, a voter casts a meaningful vote in a general election in a district where either party has a chance of winning, or in the case of Alaska, where there are two or more candidates from the same party.

Alaska’s top-four system also seems to have improved representation and empowered voters to make nuanced decisions based on individual candidates, not just their party affiliation. The results of the three statewide races in 2022 reflected the state’s ideological and demographic diversity. Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Trump-endorsed candidate, won re-election. In that same election, one of the former president’s most ardent Republican critics, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, retained her seat, and moderate Democrat Mary Peltola became the first Alaska Native elected to the U.S. House.

Finally, Alaska’s election reform appears to encourage cooperative governance. While bipartisan majority coalitions are not uncommon in the Alaska Legislature, it’s highly unusual for them to occur in both chambers at the same time — which is what happened after the 2022 elections. Once again, competition is the key here. Because legislators now have to appeal to broader swaths of the general electorate than just the primary electorate, they’re incentivized to cooperate to get results.

The absence of competitive elections in most of the country is precisely the reason why, at the moment, cooperative bipartisan governance in the U.S. House is extremely unlikely. In 2022, just 17 percent of U.S. House races were competitive in the general election. Until we increase competition nationwide, there’s little incentive for a critical mass of members to come together. That will happen when more states join Alaska, California, Louisiana and Washington in abolishing partisan primaries and replacing them with election systems that increase competition and incentivize broad coalition-building.

Richard Barton is a Democracy Fellow at Unite America and a professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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