Story last updated at 2:09 p.m. Thursday, August 22, 2002

Ballot measure aims to change elections
by Hal Spence
Morris News Service-Alaska

A ballot measure to appear on Tuesday's primary election ballot seeks to change the way Alaska's state and federal elected offices are filled by permitting voters to rank up to five candidates in order of preference and using those lists to establish clear winners.

Supporters say Ballot Measure 1 would ensure majority rule, eliminate costly runoff elections and give voters greater influence at the polls.

Listed in the Division of Elections' primary election voter guide as backing a statement in support of the measure were the Alaska Libertarian Party, Alaskan Independence Party, Green Party of Alaska, Republican Moderate Party, Republican Party of Alaska, John Havelock, a Democrat and former Alaska Attorney General, and Bruce Williams, an undeclared voter.

Opponents, notably the League of Women Voters of Alaska, said preferential voting would be confusing, especially to the elderly and others who need help understanding a ballot, and that instituting the preferential voting system could be costly -- a 1999 Alaska House Bill that sought the same thing had a fiscal note of $1.8 million.

Further, the system, also known as "instant run-off," would compromise the principle of "one-person, one vote" and could produce unusual outcomes, such as the emergence of a winner who was the top choice of comparatively few voters, said league president Cheryl Jebe, who wrote the statement of opposition for the voter election guide.

As it will appear on the ballot, the measure makes the following statement and asks the following question: "This bill enacts preferential voting for state and federal elections, except governor. Voters would rank one to five candidate choices per office. A candidate who receives a majority of the first choice votes would be elected. If no candidate gets a majority vote, the candidate with fewest first-choice votes is defeated. Then, remaining candidates receive the next-choice votes of voters whose first-choice candidate was defeated. This process continues until one candidate gets a majority of the combined votes. In a primary election, a voter may only rank candidates within one party. Shall this initiative become law?"

The measure, which would give voters the option of ranking up to five candidates by order of preference, would alter the election process for the Alaska Legislature, U.S. president and vice president, and Congress, according to the Legislative Affairs Agency. The system would not apply to the election of Alaska governor and lieutenant governor, however.

Administering the new balloting process would present the elections division with difficult challenges, according to director Janet Kowalski.

Because of her position, Kowalski said, she is prohibited by law from publicly stating her own opinion regarding the worthiness of this or any ballot measure, but she could talk about how the changed law would be implemented and how it might impact future elections.

"Nothing's impossible," she said. "We will do whatever the Legislature and the citizens of Alaska tell us to do. But this is a large change."

Among the hurdles the division would have to overcome is the need for new software for the speedy optical-scan voting system now in use in Alaska, a system that has reduced hours of waiting for results to a matter of minutes in some places. The software that operates that system would have to be rewritten to handle preferential counting, Kowalski said.

Preferential counting could make vote counting much more difficult in villages without the automated vote-counting system, she said.

State law says absentee votes may arrive by mail up to 15 days after an election and still be counted. Close elections have been held up in the past awaiting absentee ballots, but the number of such delays could multiply with preferential balloting, Kowalski said.

She also said a general "rule of thumb" holds that running a statewide election typically costs in the neighborhood of $1 million. That would be on top of the estimated $1.8 million it might take to implement the new system. Kowalski said, however, that the $1.8 million figure was more of a guess than a solid estimate.

"We'd have to do it to actually know what it would take," she said.

According to supporters, Utah Republicans use the preferential voting system to nominate congressional candidates. San Francisco voters recently passed a ballot measure to elect city leaders using the system. It also has the support of League of Women Voters in some other states.

"As far as I know, no state actually uses the system (for statewide elections)," Kowalski said.

In their statement of support, proponents said, "Every League of Women Voters, from Washington to Vermont, that has thoroughly studied instant runoff voting has endorsed it."

Jebe said that statement is a bit misleading.

"Only three have done studies -- Vermont, Washington and California," she said.

She acknowledged, however, that she had been "taken to task" by members of other state women's voter leagues for the Alaska league's April decision to oppose the ballot measure.

"It's like a railroad train out there on the pro side," she said. "We undertook the con side so the public would have information on both sides. The principle of the league is to be informed and vote, and we want to ensure the public has both sides of the story."

A question does exist regarding the one-person, one-vote issue. Under the proposed preferential voting process, the candidate with the least first-choice votes would be eliminated in a situation where no candidate got a majority.

The second-place votes on ballots of the eliminated candidate would then be distributed to the appropriate remaining candidates, a process that would continue until one candidate emerged victorious.

However, while the second-choice votes remaining on ballots cast for an eliminated candidate would be counted, the second-place votes cast by all other voters would not be counted -- at least until subsequent counts, and only if that were necessary.

That may violate the one-person, one-vote rule, Jebe said.

Not true, said Mark Chryson, chairman of the Alaskan Independence Party, a prime sponsor of the measure who did a lot of the leg work gathering signatures on the initiative that put the measure on the primary ballot.

"Those people all get their first choice," Chryson said. "The ones thrown out get their second choice."

According to Chryson, the same procedure is either on the ballot or proposed for a ballot in 14 states.

Randy Ruedrich, chair of the Republican Party of Alaska, said preferential voting actually is fairer.

"It does give people the opportunity to vote for someone that he or she is confident will lose and use their vote to make a statement without totally wasting their vote," he said.

Ruedrich said he hopes it will pass, but success is by no means a certainty.

"There is always a group of people who vote no on any initiative," he said. "They may support the status quo. This does require a major change not only in how you vote, but also in how campaigns are run, because a candidate may appeal specifically to voters who are not part of his mainstream to get their second-choice votes."

"It changes campaign dynamics a tremendous amount. Whether that's ultimately good or bad, I don't know. But it does change things."

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