Alaska voting system could change the structure of elections
November 9, 2022
For a nation torn apart politically, a cure is emerging, of all places, in Alaska.
On Tuesday, voters in the 49th state went to the polls to elect a U.S. senator and representative in a new way. The system, called “final four voting,” is aimed at choosing public officials — of any party — who will focus not on tearing down their opponents but on getting things done.
Alaska’s system, approved by the electorate in 2020, directly targets America’s greatest political challenges: how to get government to produce real solutions and, at the same time, mitigate unprecedented threats to the survival of our democracy.
The root cause of our crisis is that most November elections for Congress are meaningless. In most races, whoever wins the primary — before most voters come to the polls — is guaranteed to win in November. Districts — and, more and more, entire states — are either Republican or Democrat.
Just as employees answer to whoever signs their paychecks, public officials answer to who elects them. Their bosses are primary, not general election, voters, and primary voters tend to be driven by what political scientists call “negative partisanship.” They cast their ballots for one major party because they hate the other one so much.
As a result, Stanford University scholar Larry Diamond writes in a CNN opinion piece, candidates that emerge from the primary process “are the most uncompromising.” In office, senators and representatives must continue to woo these same voters to get re-elected. Compromise becomes a dirty word, and America suffers gridlock.
The best solution to this crisis is not exhorting politicians to get along but to change their incentives through structural reform.
On Aug. 16, the state held what’s called a top-four primary, the first round of its final-four voting process. In the Senate race, 19 candidates, including three Democrats and eight Republicans, participated. The top four finishers, regardless of party, advance to the general election.
As it happened, Republican incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski is competing in the general against two other Republicans and one Democrat. In the top-four primary for Alaska’s sole House seat, one Democrat, two Republicans and a Libertarian qualified for the general.
That general election is decided by an instant runoff. It’s exactly like a series of runoff elections, but instead of having to keep coming back multiple times, voters cast all their votes at once using a ranked ballot. The winner is the candidate with a majority.
Final four voting ensures that party primary voters aren’t the bosses anymore. General election voters are, and that changes incentives for campaigning and governing.
For this reason, I became a founder of a national campaign for final five voting, a system that I proposed in 2017. It’s the same as Alaska’s system except that more candidates advance from the primary to the general. Final five voting is the subject of a ballot initiative Nov. 8 in Nevada.
A Quinnipiac poll, released Aug. 31, found 69% of Democrats and 69% of Republicans believe “the nation’s democracy is in danger of collapse.”
A Pew Research Center survey in August found that large majorities of both parties think members of the other party are more “immoral,” “dishonest,” “closed-minded” and “unintelligent” than other Americans.
Such attitudes are generated, in part, by politicians themselves, who recognize that to get elected under our current system, they have to proclaim loudly that the other party is a danger to the American way of life.
But the real danger emanates from how we structure our elections. That’s something we can change.
Institute for Political Innovation