This lawsuit stands between Alaskans and a new ranked choice election system

Unless a legal challenge succeeds, Alaskans will vote next year in an open primary and then rank four candidates on the November ballot. (Maggie Schoenfeld)

With ranked choice voting and an open primary, Alaskans are set to elect candidates in a new way starting in the next state election, and it leaves political parties with less power. 

But first, the new system has to clear a legal challenge. Superior Court Judge Gregory Miller heard arguments Monday in a lawsuit saying the system infringes on the freedom of political association, among other constitutional rights.

Attorney Ken Jacobus is one of the people who filed the legal challenge.

“This act would get rid of the party primary system. Political parties would no longer select their candidates to appear on the general election ballot,” he said. “That’s a big problem.”

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Jacobus is a Republican who used to represent the state party. The other plaintiffs are frequent Libertarian candidate Scott Kohlhaas, and the Alaskan Independence Party and its chairman, Robert Bird.

Last year, when Alaska voters adopted Ballot Measure 2, most of the attention was on the system of ranked choice voting it creates. But ranked choice is only for the general election. Ballot Measure 2 also changes Alaska’s primary to an open election, so that all candidates, regardless of party, appear on the same ballot and voters select one favorite. The top four candidates advance to the general. 

Jacobus argued the new system deprives party members of their right to help select their party’s nominee. One of Jacobus’ objections is that it allows candidates to adopt any party label they want.

“If I were a communist running in Alaska, I would say I was a conservative Republican, because that would get me the votes,” he said.

Assistant Attorney General Margaret Paton-Walsh defended the new voting system. The constitution doesn’t require the state to run primaries so that parties can select their candidates. She also said Ballot Measure 2 leaves parties free to influence elections in other ways.

“Parties can select their own nominees, back their own nominees, endorse candidates, provide campaign support for their own candidates,” she said. “They are not required to do anything by Ballot Measure 2, and therefore there’s no forcing of candidates upon the political parties.”

Judge Miller didn’t say when he would decide whether to grant the state’s request to toss the lawsuit, but said it would be soon.

While Maine and New York City have adopted ranked choice voting, Alaska’s system of a top-four primary combined with ranked choice is unique, voting experts say.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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