Kelly Tshibaka takes on a new opponent: Alaska ranked choice voting

a woman in a white sweater
Kelly Tshibaka speaks to reporters during her election night party in Anchorage in November. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

As the State of the Union wrapped up in Washington, D.C., Kelly Tshibaka stood in front of an American flag of her own, in Kenai.

Tshibaka — a Donald Trump-endorsed candidate who ran an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate last November — just launched an organization called Preserve Democracy to fight Alaska’s ranked choice voting system, narrowly passed through a ballot initiative in 2020.

The initiative set up both the ranked-choice system in general elections and a non-partisan pick-one primary. Voters had the first go-around that new system in 2022, in all legislative and statewide races — including Tshibaka’s. She challenged U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and lost, by just over 7 percentage points.

On Tuesday, Tshibaka made her case against the new system to a standing-room-only crowd of about 100 potential Preserve Democracy donors at Paradisos in Kenai. It was a rallying cry: Tshibaka said she worries if other states think Alaska’s ranked choice system is a success, they’ll move to adopt similar systems, too.

“This is a very, very dangerous move and a threat to our democracy. If we do not act now, the entire U.S. election system is about to change,” she said Tuesday.

Proponents of the new system say it favors candidates who can appeal to the political middle. Opponents say it confuses voters and allege it contributes to lower voter turnout.

Since the November election, a group has launched a signature drive to repeal it through a ballot initiative. Lawmakers, including Republican Homer Rep. Sarah Vance, are sponsoring bills in the Alaska Legislature to write it out of state law. Tshibaka said the focus of her group is on educating and persuading Alaskans.

Soldotna Republican Tuckerman Babcock — a longtime vocal critic of ranked choice who lost a race for state Senate in November — was one of the co-hosts of Tuesday’s fundraiser. He called ranked choice voting an “experiment.”

“I’m happy to help Kelly in this effort to repeal ranked choice voting and get more information out about how it doesn’t work,” he told the crowd in Kenai.

Tshibaka said the fact that there weren’t party primaries made it harder to get to know the people running, which she said protected incumbents and establishment candidates.

Cathleen Rolph said that open primary is one of the benefits of the new system. She’s president of the Central Peninsula League of Women Voters, which, along with the statewide league, took a pro stance on the new system in the 2020 election.

“Ranked choice voting gives you a lot more options,” Rolph said. “And you just have to know those candidates, you have to learn about the candidates and pick from all those people.”

While Tshibaka and other conservatives have framed the 2022 election as a failure, the League of Women Voters and the group behind the new system, Alaskans for Better Elections, said it was a success. They point to the broad base of candidates who ran for open seats in Alaska.

Rolph said it’s important for voters to do their own research rather than to listen to politicians who are trying to sow distrust in the new system. And she said it’s a win for the state’s many registered nonpartisan voters.

“It causes candidates to speak to a broader audience,” she said.

At the fundraiser Jim Duffield, of Kenai, said he’d like to see ranked choice repealed. He’s not alone — a poll from Alaska Survey Research found a narrow majority of voters, 53%, want to repeal ranked choice voting, too.

a ranked choice opposition event
Jim Duffield fills out a donation envelope at the Preserve Democracy fundraiser in Kenai. (Sabine Poux/KDLL)

While members of the audience placed bids on key lime pies and a portrait of Donald and Melania Trump, Duffield signed his name on a donation to Tshibaka’s group. He said he knows people who didn’t vote because they didn’t trust the new system.

“Nationally, there’s a lot of people that are real upset, and a lot of people that are giving up on the system,” he said.

Tshibaka said the next steps for her organization will be to conduct a poll of Alaskans to figure out what people thought of the new system — which she said will be key in shaping education and advocacy efforts going forward.

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