Opinion: Can Alaska save democracy in Utah?
Utahns take note: Alaska’s new and unique primary election system aims to take the nastiness out of partisan campaigns. But a tough race between a Trump supporter and an old-school Republican will test that
In Alaska this year, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski faces a tough election challenge from Trump supporter Kelly Tshibaka. Murkowski voted to impeach Trump. Tshibaka is expected to hammer that hard.
“Every time she votes with her Washington, D.C., friends against the interests of Alaskans, she harms the people of this state, but she doesn’t feel it,” Tshibaka said in a statement earlier this month, according to NBC News.
If this doesn’t sound familiar to Utah voters, it might two years from now if Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who voted to impeach Trump twice, decides to run again.
Except there is a twist in Alaska. That state decided recently to change how it elects people. From now on, every candidate, regardless of party affiliation, will be lumped into one primary ballot. The top four finishers in each race will proceed to the general election, and the winner will be chosen by ranked choice voting.
Romney supporters take note: Murkowski probably wouldn’t survive a primary election in which only Republicans could vote. A statewide primary, followed by a ranked choice general election, gives her a fighting chance. A poll in march showed Tshibaka leading Murkowski, 51%-49% statewide, which is within the margin of error.
Romney polled 51% statewide among all Utah voters in a January survey by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics. He slipped to 44% in an April poll, but in both surveys he did much better among all voters than he did among Republicans only.
Utah also has begun flirting with ranked choice voting, allowing it to be used in municipal elections. Last year, 21 cities used it, and it worked well. The next step, however, will be the hardest.
This year, the Utah House quickly scuttled a bill that would have expanded it to all primary and general elections with multiple candidates, apparently after learning it had become a target of right-wing conspiracy activists. It wasn’t the only bill to fall victim to angry and ignorant crowds.
But Alaska has forged ahead, and now it is about to test one of the long-touted virtues of ranked choice voting — that it would remove a lot of the nastiness from American politics and force candidates to be nicer to each other. There could be no greater test of that than a race involving a fiery Trump supporter and an old-fashioned centrist Republican who voted to impeach him.
Under ranked choice voting, voters are asked to rank the candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the first-place votes, the last-place finisher is eliminated, and those who chose that candidate as the first preference would automatically have their second choices distributed among the other candidates. This process continues until one candidate passes the 50% threshold.
In theory, anyway, candidates would be forced to campaign with greater civility, hoping that those who vote for their opponent’s supporters would at least rank them second. In reality, this may apply only to how candidates treat those who are considered the weakest in the race — the ones most likely to be eliminated.
It’s hard to imagine Tshibaka suddenly saying sweet things about Murkowski, but even a nicer tone to the weaker candidates would be something.
Utah’s Republican and Democratic parties are scheduled to hold their state convention this Saturday. Both are expected to offer a fair share of muscle-flexing, if not downright bullying, by party zealots. Already, one moderate Republican lawmaker was ousted at a county convention.
Utah allows candidates to get on the primary ballot in one of two ways — either by the approval of delegates to county and state conventions, or through a petition process.
Some thinkers would argue this means Utah has the worst of all systems. In an excellent piece in the May edition of The Atlantic, focused on how social media has made America “stupid,” NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt said closed primaries (in which only registered party members may vote) allow “the outsize influence of angry extremists” in both parties. This, in turn, makes candidates afraid to compromise on any legislation because they might lose their seat. They run the risk of being “primaried,” slang for being challenged by a candidate seen as more ideologically pure.
He recommends following Alaska’s example as one way to solve an unfolding crisis of democracy he persuasively argues eventually could collapse “our institutions, our political system, and our society. …”
Utah, where Republicans are in no mood to relinquish their caucus/convention system or their closed primaries, is a long way from becoming like Alaska. Still, with ranked choice voting becoming more familiar in Utah municipal elections, it’s worth keeping a keen eye on the people way up north.