Learn how Alaska’s top-four nonpartisan primaries and instant runoff general elections increased meaningful participation and electoral competition
In a new report from the Unite America Institute, authors Rachel Leven and Tyler Fisher find Alaska’s top-four nonpartisan primaries and instant runoff general elections increased meaningful participation and electoral competition, while also improving representation along both ideological and demographic lines. The biggest takeaway from from the first use of Alaska’s new election system is best summarized in the conclusion of the report:
"The most consequential finding of this report is that, under the Alaska System, elections were more competitive and less frequently pre-determined by party affiliation alone — giving voters a more meaningful choice and more powerful voice in who represents them."
Alaska voters led the nation by casting the highest percentage of “meaningful votes” in 2022 elections — ballots cast in competitive state house elections that are not effectively pre-determined by party affiliation. Alaska’s new system also led to the election of candidates who better reflect the diversity of the state.
The report examines the impetus for reform within Alaska’s politics and evaluates the reform’s impact on participation, competition, representation, polarization, governance, and voter experience.
Alaska’s new election system had the instant impact of granting all Alaska voters the right to vote for any candidate in every election — regardless of party — for the first time in over 20 years. Under the old partisan primary system, voters were forced to choose either a Democratic or Republican primary ballot. The new system gives voters the flexibility to support a Democrat for one office, a Republican for another, and an independent for a third, if they wish.
Because of its top-four nonpartisan primary system, Alaskans cast the highest share of “meaningful votes” in the nation: More than one-third of eligible voters (35%) cast meaningful votes to elect the state house. This represents a 58% increase over the state’s rate in 2020 (the final year that the previous partisan primary system was used) and shines in comparison to the 12% national average.
While all voter participation in any election is important, it is an unfortunate reality that not all votes matter equally. For example, Republican voters in safe Democratic districts generally don’t have a say in general election outcomes, so their participation is less meaningful. (The same is true of Democratic voters in safe Republican districts.) In a nonpartisan primary system, however, it is possible for multiple candidates from a district’s dominant party to advance to the general election, thus allowing all general election voters to cast meaningful votes.
Alaska’s new election system made general elections more competitive. There are several different measures by which competition increased:
While it is too early to know the full extent of the Alaska system's impact on representation, more women and people of color ran for the state legislature in 2022, and they performed better than in 2020.
In addition, the new election system allowed Alaska’s independent-majority electorate to better express its diverse ideological viewpoints. The same statewide electorate elected a conservative Republican governor, a moderate Republican U.S. Senator, and a moderate Democratic U.S. Representative. Voters also elected more independents to the state legislature than ever before: Six independent candidates won legislative seats, comprising 10% of the legislature.
Despite the fact there is just one election cycle worth of data, early evidence suggests Alaska’s new election system has had a positive impact. It is apparent that voters have more voice, candidates face greater competition, and elected officials better reflect the state as a whole — all essential ingredients to a functional and representative government.