Majority of Alaskans voted across party lines in ’22 primary, study says

Voters cast their ballots in the 2022 primary election in Anchorage on Aug. 16, 2022. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska has the highest proportion of independent voters in the country: In 2022, the first time the state had nonpartisan, open primary elections, a majority of Alaska voters split their tickets, meaning they didn’t vote for candidates that were all from the same party.

That’s according to research by Sightline Institute, a nonpartisan public policy think tank, published in early April under a headline that says, “open primaries let Alaskans choose values over party.”

At the same time, there are efforts underway to repeal open primaries and ranked choice voting in the state Legislature and through a citizens’ initiative. Opponents say the system disadvantages conservative candidates.

Alaska voters approved open primaries, along with ranked choice voting, in the 2020 election.

Sightline researcher Jeannette Lee, who wrote the study along with her colleague and data whiz Jay Lee, says their analysis of the 2022 election shows Alaskans wanted more choice than what the previous closed primary system allowed.


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This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Jeannette Lee: So there are five races where the open primaries applied. We had the governor’s race, we had the U.S. Senate race, the U.S. House race, and then the two legislative races for the (state) House and Senate. And we found that, yeah, people, 52% of voters, were just sort of like picking and choosing in different races. They were not voting along party lines. They were doing some actually really unusual things with their ballots that we didn’t expect to see. And that really spoke to the power that this new primary system gave to voters to express themselves in ways that they that would have been impossible under the old system.

Casey Grove: I think, just real quickly, maybe we should note, too, it’s 52% voted a split ballot of some kind, but then it was like 40, 40 something percent voted straight…

JL: Straight Republican. So 44% voted straight Republican, and 4% voted straight Democrat. Yeah.

CG: What were some of the interesting things — I mean, you mentioned some of the, like, combinations of, you know, candidates that people voted for — what were some of the things that stood out to you?

JL: Yeah, well, one of the main questions I had was, how many different combinations Were there out there, right? Because we had five races with multiple candidates in each race. But we found that there were 7,500 different combinations of candidates in that data. So that was kind of amazing to see.

CG: Which, I mean, if you were if you were looking at it, like there’s just two parties, closed primaries, it’d be more likely for there to just be maybe two combinations, or many fewer right than 7,500 or whatever.

JL: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, we looked across all five races to see what the most popular combination was. And we found that 5% of all voters voted for (U.S. Sen. Lisa) Murkowski and Democrats across the rest of the ballot.

CG: And we know, like, what the combination is that we got, right? We know that you got a conservative governor (Gov. Mike Dunleavy) who supports, you know, a very conservative president, Donald Trump, former President Donald Trump. They elected a fairly moderate republican, Lisa Murkowski and a pretty moderate Democrat, Mary Peltola, to the U.S. House. And so I wonder, is it that voters drove that with their choice, or the candidates drove that with their positions and that’s what resonated with people?

JL: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think we’ll be looking for, definitely in 2024, to see how that interplay works. I think it’s a little of both, right? So if there are candidates that transcend party positions, and you have voters for whom that’s attractive, then you’re going to see more ticket splitting. I think Alaska is a state where that seems to be the case. So I think we would expect to see more of that.

You know, which one is driving this whole phenomenon? I think it’s probably a combination of both. And that’s what this system allows for. I mean, under the old system, a candidate who had broad-based support in the general might not make it through the primary process. I mean, we’ve seen that happen a few times, both at the federal level and the in the state Legislature.

CG: In terms of how polarized the country has become, you know, when we talk about the fact that there are leaders in this state, elected leaders, from different parties, is that becoming more rare in the United States?

JL: It is, yeah. Back in the 1990s, you had, I think, 30 states where the major parties split between control of the legislature and the governor’s seat. Now we have 40 states where there’s what’s called a trifecta, where one party controls the governor’s seat and the legislature, both chambers. And Alaska is one of, like, 10 states, where that’s not the case, where we still have bipartisan control happening. So it’s definitely becoming more rare.

CG: I mean, what do you think is the effect of that, like in terms of political discussions in Alaska versus other places?

JL: Well, I think what you see is a greater unwillingness from Congress on down to work together across party lines and come to healthy policy consensus. It’s become more about getting a win for the party, and less about, like, “Let’s make good policy, good policy that benefits everybody.”

CG: I feel like I have to ask to you, I mean, there’s this effort to repeal ranked choice voting, and with that open primaries, both I think in the Legislature and a citizens initiative, right? And their argument is that it disadvantages conservative Republicans. What do you think about that? I mean, this notion that it might disadvantage certain candidates?

JL: Yeah, it might disadvantage certain candidates in certain situations, but overall, that’s not what the system is designed to do. And that’s not how it does it. It sort of like better reflects what the actual state of the political culture is in that particular state. So it could be that in Alaska, you know, you have conservative candidates who maybe don’t make it through the primary like they used to. But in another state, you might see that happen with Democrats, for example. Whereas in the old system, and in the system that’s used in many states today, you do see candidates on the fringes of both the right and the left getting through the primaries and beating the more moderate candidates who would have been successful in the general election and who would have gone on to be, you know, more across-the-aisle-type politicians. So I think that is where we see a lot of the divisiveness coming in.

CG: I feel like we’ve heard about this for a while now that, you know, Alaska isn’t necessarily a red state or a blue state, it’s more purple. And of course they have, you know, animals. There’s the donkey for the Democratic Party. There’s the elephant for the Republican Party. I wondered, for purple, if Alaska is purple, would you support a Barney the Dinosaur mascot?

JL: I was thinking of like something with like an elephant head and a donkey body, although I’m sure there would be some conflict over who gets to be the head, maybe? I don’t know. So yeah, maybe a dinosaur would be… or yeah, like a purple moose or something would be…

CG: A purple moose. Yeah, there you go.

JL: Yeah.

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at Read more about Casey here

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