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Does Alaska Have the Solutions to Congress' Governing Problem?

Created: 25 October, 2023
4 min read

The US House has been absent a speaker for 22 days. The House GOP caucus has selected its fourth nominee for the position, but it's possible the chamber could set a new record for the number of days it has gone with an interim speaker. 

Update: Shortly after the article published, the US House elected US Rep. Kevin Johnson to be the new Speaker of the House.

What sets this situation apart, however, from the 28 days the House had an interim speaker in 1961 is the House had a sitting speaker, but he was unable to fill the role for that period of time. Today, the absence of speaker is the result of a governing problem.

Every day the House goes without a speaker, the longer Congress is effectively shut down.

The nonprofit Unite America Institute released a new report Wednesday that looks at the current issues in Congress and offers up one state that may hold the state-based solutions to this nationwide problem: Alaska. 

In 2020, Alaska voters approved Ballot Measure 2, which (among other reforms) adopted a nonpartisan top-four primary in which all voters and candidates participate on a single ballot and the top four vote-getters, regardless of party, move on to the general election.

Voters are not restricted to the candidates of a single party or forced to join a party to vote. They can select from all eligible candidates running in an election, meaning they have more choice and candidates have to campaign to a broader segment of the voting population. 

Nonpartisan primaries, in turn, make elections more competitive.

The Unite America Institute found that in 2022, the number of uncontested races in Alaska dropped to 12 percent. Compare that to states that use closed partisan primary systems, like New Mexico, where half of state legislative races go uncontested each election cycle.

And, as seen in a state like California, nonpartisan primaries enhance the voting power of the individual citizen and creates greater accountability in the political process.

"Used for the first time in 2022, the new system gave Alaskans the most 'meaningful votes' in the nation," writes Ross Sherman, press director for Unite America.

"The share of Alaskans casting meaningful votes increased by nearly 60% over 2020 to 35%, which is about three times the national average."

Keep in mind that this was the first implementation of this new system.

The Unite America Institute points out that following the 2022 elections, bipartisan majority coalitions formed in both chambers in the Alaska Legislature. The groups says that while these coalitions are not uncommon in Alaska, it's unusual for them to occur in the state House and Senate at the same time. 

These are coalitions that are all but impossible in the political landscape of Congress. Most members are selected in low-turnout partisan primaries in which a marginal percentage of party members vote, and it's to these hardcore partisans that members hold themselves accountable.

Imagine if more members of Congress were elected in nonpartisan primaries -- whether it be top-two, top-four, or top-five.

Even if two or more candidates from the same party advance to the general election, candidates have to set themselves apart from the other members of their party to win. The voters who will decide the election will be everyone outside the party's base -- power these voters don't have under the current partisan system.

“Two simple but powerful things are now true about Alaska’s elections: Every eligible voter has the freedom to vote for any candidate in every taxpayer-funded election, and politicians have to win a majority to take office,” said Unite America Executive Director Nick Troiano, who authored the upcoming book, The Primary Solution.

“When lawmakers are elected by the majority of voters, they’re more likely to represent that majority. That’s true in Alaska, but clearly not in the U.S. House of Representatives.”

For more than a decade, IVN has warned of the consequences of partisan primaries that give a handful of voters disproportionately greater power than the voting population at large. What voters see from Congress today was an inevitability.

It was an inevitability that stems from how we elect our representatives -- and the way we elect our representatives in most cases incentivizes candidates to serve the interests of private political parties first. 

And believe it or not, as bad and chaotic as everything seems, it will get worse. 

It doesn't need to be this way. There are reform solutions -- like nonpartisan primary reform -- that shift the incentive of our election process from serving private organizations and their leaders to serving the interests of voters. All anyone has to do is look at a state like Alaska to see the evidence.

Read Unite America Institute's full report here

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