| Jeannette Lee ∙ Sightline Institute |
Community groups in Alaska working to educate voters face a daunting, but doable, task in 2022. For the first time, Alaskans will use top-four open primaries and ranked choice voting to pick the winners in statewide races. Hundreds of thousands of voters across this vast state will need guidance on the new ways of choosing candidates. Turnout and results will hinge on the quality of the information they’re given. If enough Alaskans like the process, other states may decide to unlock the same opportunities for their voters and strengthen the trust and consensus required for a functional democracy.
”Reforms need to be implemented well, and that takes a lot of work
Public resources for voter education likely won’t be enough. The Alaska Division of Elections will be a valuable hub of information, but its budget is simply too small to adequately prime every voter for the changes ahead. Nonprofits of all stripes, business groups, neighborhood associations, and others can, and should, help by informing their networks and members about how the new system will work. The political returns could be well worth it for groups that support specific causes or candidates. That’s because voters who are familiar with the new ballots will be far more likely to cast one successfully. Organizations can also generate goodwill for themselves by providing trustworthy information on effective civic engagement. They shouldn’t let lack of experience in voter education hold them back.
Spreading the word about open primaries and ranked choice voting might be as simple as posting a how-to video to a social media account. Other activities might include tabling at the Alaska State Fair, door-knocking in Spenard, or mailing election materials to Savoonga. The approach doesn’t have to be particularly formal. But it does need to be accurate and engaging. Anything a group does to familiarize its members with the new method will help. The mountain biking groups I follow in Anchorage could have members rank the best stretches of singletrack. Or maybe my book club will forgive me for my poor attendance record and set aside some time to discuss our new voting system. Or Hula Hands, my go-to restaurant for Hawaiian food, might run a mock election on its social media asking followers to rank their menu faves.
Whatever form the message takes, it helps to remember that open primaries and ranked choice voting are easy to understand. Rather, change itself is the obstacle (which is maybe why I still sometimes forget to use my rear camera while parallel parking). This article provides some basic tools organizations can use to inform voters, including explainers, videos and other graphics, sample ballots, and mock elections. It also addresses funding and resources for voter outreach and how ranked choice voting education played out for Maine and other early adopters of the system.
As Alaska goes, so goes the nation?
On election policy, Alaska has proved nimbler than the federal government and every other state but Maine. Through the adoption of open primaries and ranked choice voting, Alaskans have committed to a fairer, more functional process for choosing leaders. But passage of the measure was just the beginning. Now, Alaskans from all backgrounds and political ideologies have the power to shape the follow-through and make it a success.
There’s more at stake than statewide politics. Alaska is on a bipartisan shortlist of recent ranked choice voting converts that includes Maine, New York City, several cities in Utah, and the Virginia Republican Party. Democracy in the United States is becoming a fast-growing wilderness leading millions of Americans astray. The success of these ranked choice systems, including Alaska’s, could help determine how many return to the fold.