Setting the record straight on voter turnout in Alaska
The topline: An examination of Alaska’s turnout for the past six midterms shows the state returned to its status as a national leader in primary election participation in 2022. At the same time, voter turnout in the general election remained at similar levels to previous midterm elections. While it's impossible to isolate the role that election reform played, these are positive signs that we hope researchers will continue to scrutinize in future election cycles.
Both supporters and detractors of nonpartisan primaries and ranked-choice voting (RCV) make big claims when it comes to voter turnout. Advocates believe that increased choice and power will lead to a more engaged electorate while critics argue that the system discourages voter participation.
During Alaska’s recent election, where a top-four nonpartisan primary and a ranked-choice voting general election were combined for the first time, critics were especially forceful in promoting the idea that voters weren’t going to show up. Today, they are continuing to claim that voter turnout in 2022 was unusually low. Yet, national coverage of this past election season references Alaska as a high-turnout state. In fact, a report from the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) recently highlighted Alaska as having the third-highest primary election turnout in the country.
So, did Alaska’s voter turnout take a dive or take flight?
Unite America’s examination of the state data shows it was neither. While there was an increase in voter turnout in the primary compared to 2018, there was very little change in the general election. It’s too early to say with assurance what the system’s isolated effect was on turnout. However, at least in the case of the general election, the effect appears minimal.
Most turnout coverage has focused on the general election and the change to RCV. However, in 2022 Alaska also moved to a new primary system in which all candidates appear on one ballot, regardless of their party affiliation, and the top four candidates move on to the general election. The primary was a major change and it deserves examination to the same extent as the general election.
Looking at the turnout of Alaska’s voting-age population (VAP) in elections over the last 20 years, 2022 ties with 2014 for the highest voter turnout (35%).
In 2022, Alaska returned to its place as a national leader in primary voting after a major dip in 2018.
Looking at Alaska’s model alongside other systems, BPC found that switching to a top-two or top-four primary system was generally good for turnout. This is a positive sign. However, at this point, we cannot say how much the Alaska model contributed to this boost.
General Election Turnout
In 2022, 48% of age-eligible voters participated in November, about the same as in 2006 and 2010. While slightly lower than the 2018 midterm, turnout for the general election in 2022 was fully in line with historic midterm turnout.
This runs contrary to the narrative that confusion turned voters away from the polls, a sentiment critics continue to push. There are a few reasons for this difference. First, comparisons that assume all elections are equal fail to recognize that midterms generally have a lower turnout than presidential elections. When comparing midterms like 2022 and 2018 to presidential election years like 2020 and 2016, you will regularly see a decrease in the number of people voting: it is simply not an apples-to-apples comparison.
Second, election authorities, including Alaska’s, generally report turnout as a percent of registered voters, and most coverage immediately following an election uses this metric as well. However, total registered voters can include inactive voters (such as people who moved from the state) and the number does not include people who were eligible to vote but were unable to register. The number is also subject to external variables like changes in registration laws, such as automatic voter registration, which Alaska adopted in 2016. Because of this, experts tend to rely on more stable baselines, like voting eligible or voting age population, as we have done in this analysis.
In Alaska’s case, the number of registered voters in 2022 (601,795) was actually larger than the voting-age population (552,585) in the state. This does not mean that there were people voting who were ineligible to do so. Rather, it serves as a reminder of the importance and challenge of registration maintenance.
The election system is just one factor amidst a large and complicated set of variables affecting voter turnout, and it is nearly impossible to draw a conclusion from one election season. Critics who point to turnout changes between 2020 and 2022 are making a false comparison, often based on bad data that uses the number of registered voters instead of actual population estimates. The truth is that Alaska’s general election turnout looked very similar to turnout in prior years. Meanwhile, turnout in the primary saw a significant increase over 2018 returning Alaska to its status as a national leader in election participation.
While these are positive signs, researchers should continue to track changes in engagement. With more experience and data we may be able to identify whether it was top-four or national events that led to an increase in primary turnout and what effect, if any, the model has on participation in the general election.