By Megan Caska
Interim Director of Political Programs, RepresentUs

This year, Alaska will debut a voting system that will give more Alaskans more choices at the ballot box. It will hold open single ballot primaries, followed by ranked choice voting general elections. Alaska will become the first U.S. state to use this combination, and other states should follow its lead. 

This voting system was always scheduled to be used for the 2022 midterm elections. However, because of Rep. Don Young’s unexpected death in mid-March, there will also be a special election for his seat using the same process. 

How will this system work exactly?

A significant number of states have some version of a closed or semi-closed partisan primary. In these states, party affiliation or a public declaration of ballot preference impacts a voter's options for their primary ballot. This often disadvantages independent or unaffiliated voters and prevents Democrats and Republicans from voting across party lines. Many others have open primaries, where voters can choose the primary ballot they wish, regardless of party affiliation.

In Alaska’s new system however, every candidate regardless of political affiliation will appear on the same ballot and every registered Alaskan can vote. This is called a nonpartisan primary. The four candidates with the most votes will then advance to the general election. 

In the general election, the winner will be decided by ranked choice voting. In a ranked-choice election, voters rank as many candidates as they wish in order of preference. If a candidate receives more than 50% of the first-preference votes, they win. If nobody gets to 50%, the candidate with the lowest number of first-choice votes is eliminated. The voters who chose that candidate as their first choice will then have their second-choice votes counted instead. This process, which is also sometimes called instant runoff voting, continues until there is a majority winner.

While Alaska is not the first state to have nonpartisan primaries or ranked choice voting, it is the first to use this combination. Alaska voters approved this system by ballot measure in 2020. 

What are the benefits?

Here at RepresentUs, we’ve been documenting the numerous benefits that ranked-choice voting and both nonpartisan and open primaries provide voters. At the most basic level, American voters want more choices in elections. In a February 2021 poll, 62% of Americans supported the need for a third major political party – an all-time high. 

Ranked-choice voting provides a clear solution to this issue. Voters can choose their preferred candidate, such as a Green or Libertarian Party candidate, without worrying that they might be throwing their vote away or helping a candidate they don’t like win. It also ensures that the eventual winner has majority support, it saves money by avoiding expensive runoff elections, and it promotes less divisive campaigning.

Similarly, nonpartisan and open primaries give voters more choices. Because most general elections are noncompetitive due to partisan gerrymandering, most U.S. House of Representatives races are decided in primaries. And when only some voters can participate in the primary process they want, many are left voiceless. 

Another benefit to nonpartisan primaries is that it tends to produce candidates that are more reflective of their constituents. In order to win, candidates have to appeal to more of the electorate than just their most partisan base. One of Alaska’s senators, Lisa Murkowski, is a great example of that.

With growing frustration with American political parties, ranked-choice and open and nonpartisan primary voting provides American voters with more choices in their elections, bringing crucial change to the American voting system. 

Looking forward

Currently, 24 U.S. states have some kind of open or nonpartisan primary system. In addition to Alaska’s nonpartisan single-ballot primary, both California and Washington state hold “top 2” primaries. In those elections, the top two winners, regardless of political party, advance to the general election. 

Across the other 26 states, voting systems are varied. But the majority of them hold primary elections that restrict voters’ choices compared to fully open or nonpartisan and ranked-choice primaries. Closed primaries restrict voter choice especially severely, and lock out millions of unaffiliated voters completely. In Oregon, where unaffiliated voters now outnumber Democrats, activists are for open primaries, and momentum nationwide is growing. 

Meanwhile, ranked-choice voting is an option for voters in more states than ever before. Both Missouri and Nevada are exploring ballot measures to approve ranked choice voting, and Maine and New York City also have moved to ranked-choice voting in recent years. 

While both open primaries and ranked choice voting are better for voters, it threatens the power of the major political parties. In the past year, at least six state legislatures have tried to ban local communities from changing election rules. In Memphis, Tenn., where voters have ranked-choice voting three times, opposition from local and state officials has prevented the measure from ever taking place.

Yet despite this opposition, voters across the country are recognizing that ranked-choice voting and open primaries present them with more choice and control over their elections. As our own CEO Joshua Graham Lynn told USA Today, “Once voters see how well this system works, they’re much more likely to want to adopt it for where they live.” 

RepresentUs will continue to fight for ranked-choice voting, nonpartisan and open primaries, and other initiatives to improve elections for Americans, and if you want to join us on this journey, subscribe to our newsletter below!

Contributors: Adam DuBard, RepresentUs Political Analyst; Caroline Joseph, RepresentUs Research Analyst