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The tale of two primaries

Three things to think about this August 18th

Alana Persson
Digital Marketing Associate
August 18, 2022

The game-changing moment for election reform, the day that you’d been hearing us talk about for months, finally arrived on Tuesday. Voters had the opportunity to participate in Alaska's new nonpartisan primary system, which included a top-four nonpartisan primary (in which the top four vote-getters advance to the general) and a special ranked choice voting general election to fill the seat of the late Rep. Don Young for the remainder of his term. 

This landmark election comes at a critical time for the United States — the worsening Primary Problem means this is the least representative electorate in our nation’s history. So far this election season, only 6.6% of all eligible voters have cast ballots in primaries effectively deciding 70.3% of Congress. This is fueling dysfunction, distorting representation, and disenfranchising voters across the country, and it’s why what Alaska is rolling out this election season is so momentous.

We are at a critical juncture as a nation, a crossroads, if you will — Alaska is paving the way for landmark election reform, and other states are watching. Already there are other efforts underway in dozens of states to push forward on fixing the system, and as this primary season has already shown, it can’t come soon enough. 

Here are three things to consider this week:

1. Alaska Primary Day — A New Model for the Nation

Media outlets have posed the following questions for months: Can Alaska save democracy? The answer is, that it’s a major step in the right direction. Regardless of the results from Alaska’s primary this past Tuesday, thanks to the new reform, we already know that the winner will represent who the majority of Alaska voters wanted to represent them. And remember: Be patient. The results from Alaska’s milestone election have been coming in since the polls closed on August 16th, and will continue to do so until August 31st as election officials count every vote from across the vast state and from the overseas military. This extended post-election period is due to a longstanding statute we spoke to last week to help ensure every vote is counted. 

But we don’t need to wait for the official results to see how the system in Alaska is already resulting in a more representative candidate pool making it to the general election. How do we know this already? Well, we can look now to another state that held a primary this week — Wyoming.

2. Wyoming’s Primary Election — The Primary Problem on Display

While from different parts of the country, Republicans Senator Lisa Murkowski (AK) and Congresswoman Liz Cheney (WY) have one distinct thing in common — during their previous terms both had become outliers to Republicans after breaking from the party-line and, in turn, both faced tough primaries. 

What was the outcome? Representative Cheney lost her race — yet, Sen. Murkowski is still in the running in Alaska, leading the primary field as of this writing. So, what led to these dramatically different race results? The answer lies in the difference between how Alaska and Wyoming conduct their primaries.

Alaska’s Nonpartisan Primary: Alaska’s new nonpartisan primary system passed by voters in 2020 is open to all age-eligible voters. Every candidate runs on the same ballot rather than in separate by-party primaries. This allows voters to vote for any candidate of their choosing regardless of party affiliation. The result? It creates greater competition and more choices —  Alaska saw 19 candidates run in the Senate primary, including Murkowski, while 48 candidates ran for the U.S. House seat in the special election. Coupled with a ranked choice voting general election, Alaskans have also eliminated the spoiler effect. So, in a state that typically votes red, voters will have multiple choices instead of just one and the whole state will have their say. Contrast that with Wyoming … 

Wyoming’s Semi-Open Primary: On the other hand, Wyoming conducted a semi-open, party-run primary. In this system, voters aren’t able to choose from among all the candidates and must decide in which party’s primary to participate (and in deep red Wyoming, whoever wins the Republican primary is guaranteed to win the general). In contrast to Alaska’s U.S. House election, Wyoming only had 8 primary candidates in the running and thousands of voters were barred from participating in the party primary of consequence.

3. A Tale of Two Primaries

On Monday, the New York Times ed board linked the Wyoming-Alaska connection to underscore their take on why political bravery is in such short supply in America, noting that “Ms. Murkowski is still one of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans in this year’s elections, but Alaska’s system gives her a chance to be judged by all the voters there, rather than registered Republicans alone.” And on Tuesday night, Nick Troiano, our Executive Director, summed up the contrasting primaries during his interview on MSNBC’s “The 11th Hour.”