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Solution Series

Does Alaska have a solution for our political dysfunction?

Here are three things to think about this October 26th

Ross Sherman
Press Director
October 26, 2023

After more than three weeks, the United States finally has a new Speaker of the House. Since former Speaker Kevin McCarthy was removed from his post on October 3, the House of Representatives had tried and failed repeatedly to elect a replacement. 

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Backward electoral incentives help explain the Speaker saga, the near-government shutdown, and more broadly, the inability to tackle our country’s biggest issues. When 83% of elections for the U.S. House aren’t competitive, the vast majority of members have very little incentive to compromise and represent the majority. Instead, they have every incentive to act in a way that appeals to the sliver of primary voters that determine most elections.

There are ways we can change the incentives. In RealClearPolitics, FairVote’s Rachel Hutchinson makes a compelling case that instant runoffs (using ranked choice voting) is a solution to the chaos. CNN’s Jake Tapper echoed that sentiment in an interview with a Republican representative, asking, “Have you considered ranked choice voting?” Sen. Mitt Romney also joined the choir of voices calling for a change to our electoral system, saying, “the evidence suggests it would be a superior way to proceed.”

Speaking of ways we should change our election system…

1. New research: Alaska may have some answers to our political dysfunction

Over the past year, the Unite America Institute has published research on nonpartisan primary systems in Louisiana and California. We’re thrilled to announce that the third Solution Series report came out yesterday, which takes a deep dive into how Alaska’s historic top-four nonpartisan primary system affects politics and governance.

While Alaska has only used the top-four system for one election cycle, the early signs are promising. Notably, it dramatically increased the competitiveness of elections. In 2022, the number of uncontested races dropped to 12%, the lowest in a decade. The number of close state legislative elections was also double the recent historical average.

When elections are more competitive, voters have a stronger voice and their participation is more meaningful. In 2022, 35% of Alaskans cast “Meaningful Votes” to elect their state house — the highest percentage in the nation and three times the national average. Meaningful Votes are ballots cast in competitive elections that are not effectively pre-determined based on party affiliation alone. For example, a voter casts a meaningful vote in a general election in a district where either party has a chance of winning, or in the case of Alaska, where there are two or more candidates from the same party.

The Solution Series is showing that primary reform works, and it’s helping to address the chaos and gridlock that has come to define our politics. As Dr. Rich Barton writes in Governing, what’s happening in the Alaska Legislature stands in stark contrast to the U.S. House of Representatives. One of the reasons Alaska can have cooperative governing coalitions is that elections are more competitive. The U.S. House can’t because it doesn’t. Check out our press release, blog, and “X” thread to learn more.

2. Growing momentum for opening Pennsylvania’s “archaic” closed primary system

While Alaska represents one end of the election reform spectrum, Pennsylvania may be… the polar opposite. It’s one of 15 states that doesn’t guarantee independents the right to vote in primaries. That’s more than one million Pennsylvania voters who don’t have a voice in who represents them, which includes around 400,000 veterans. At Unite America, we believe that every voter should have the freedom to vote in every taxpayer-funded election. 

Fortunately, there’s serious momentum for repealing Pennsylvania’s closed primary system. Last week, Pennsylvania students joined our partners at BallotPA for a rally at the capitol. This issue is particularly acute among young people, since a disproportionate number of them aren’t registered with either major party. 

A day after the rally, the House State Government Committee moved two bipartisan bills forward that would end closed primaries in Pennsylvania. And on Tuesday, one of the state’s largest newspapers endorsed the effort. We’ll be working closely with our partners in the state to get this over the finish line so that more than one million Pennsylvanians have a say.

3. The latest updates and opportunities from our partners

As you know, Unite America supports dozens of state partners and national organizations working to solve the “Primary Problem.” I wanted to highlight some recent updates and upcoming events from our partners that might be of interest:

  • RepresentWomen is hosting a briefing on November 8, the day after the election, to discuss their work to identify and address the barriers that women face as candidates and as elected officials. Register here.
  • Veterans for All Voters (formerly known as Veterans for Political Innovation) has several upcoming events, including a primer on the push for ranked choice voting in Texas, and an in-person panel about independent voters in Arizona. 
  • A new report from the center-right think tank R Street recommends ways states can change election practices to combat misinformation.
  • Open Primaries hosted their latest virtual discussion Tuesday about “Fighting for Open Primaries in Democratic Party Strongholds.” You can watch it here.

Before I sign off: In case you missed it, we published our inaugural Partner Spotlight on New Mexico Open Elections earlier this month. The Spotlight is part of our Storytelling Series, which will highlight the tireless work of individuals and organizations across the country championing election reforms.

Happy Halloween!