Nonpartisan Primaries, Ranked Choice Voting Steer Focus of Pro Voter Reformers

Created: 16 August, 2022
Updated: 26 September, 2022
7 min read

The reform landscape has changed over the last few years. Solutions that were once presented at odds with each other have combined efforts to give voters fairer, more equitable, and more accountable elections.

The first success story of this can be found in Alaska, where the state conducted its first top-four nonpartisan primary for most of its elections on August 16, and used ranked choice voting for the first time in a special election for the state’s single congressional seat.

A majority of Alaska voters approved the use of nonpartisan primaries and ranked choice voting in general elections under the same ballot measure (Ballot Measure 2) in 2020. It was the first statewide measure to combine two reforms that for years were treated as mutually exclusive. 

The Nonpartisan Primary

Under a nonpartisan primary system, all voters and candidates (regardless of party) participate on a single primary ballot. The number of top vote-getters that advance to the general election in each race depends on the rules of the state.

In California and Washington, for instance, the top two vote-getters advance. In Alaska, it's the top four candidates.

Alaska conducted its first top-four primary on June 11 in a special election to fill the state’s at-large congressional seat left vacant by the passing of US Rep. Don Young. Young died on March 18, 2022.

A special election was scheduled to fill the congressional seat for the remainder of Young’s term. Nearly 50 candidates ran in the primary, and in the end former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Republican Nicholas Begich, independent Al Gross, and Democrat Mary Peltola.

The field of candidates was narrowed even further when Al Gross dropped out of the race. 

Party affiliation doesn’t factor into who can advance to the general election. In the special election, for example, two Republicans advanced from the primary. It all comes down to who are the top vote-getters among all participating voters.

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This is the biggest thing that separates nonpartisan primaries from partisan primaries. Partisan primaries exist specifically to nominate candidates for private political parties. It gives the parties the most control over voters’ choices in the general election.

In other words, partisan primaries serve a private function, even though they are paid for by public tax dollars. And in many states, the right to participate in these elections is conditioned on being a registered party member.

A nonpartisan primary shifts control away from parties to the electorate. The party has less influence in a field that consists of all candidates running in the election because the candidates who advance will be chosen by voters across the political spectrum.

In other words, by allowing the electorate at large to narrow the field of candidates in an election, nonpartisan primaries serve a public function. 

Ranked Choice Voting

Voters then have the option to rank the top four candidates in order of preference in the general election using ranked choice voting. The voting method ensures that a candidate cannot win with a mere plurality of votes due to vote splitting.

Candidates can be marked as a voter’s first choice, second choice, third choice, etc. If no one has at least 50%+1 of first choice selections, an automatic round of runoff is held that eliminates the last place candidate and applies their voters' next choice to the results.

Additional rounds are used until a single candidate has a majority of the vote.

For voters, an easy way of thinking about it is they would rank the candidate they most want to see elected first. Then, they would rank the candidate they would vote for if their preferred candidate wasn’t in the race second. And so on.

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Alaska is the second state to adopt ranked choice voting at the state level, following an historic vote in Maine in 2016 to use a voting method that has since grown exponentially in popularity and is projected to be used in 55 jurisdictions in their next elections.

Without ranked choice voting, the least preferred candidate in Alaska’s at-large US House election and US Senate race would likely win due to an effect of choose-one voting called vote splitting. 

Recent polling data shows that if first choice selections reflected voters' preferred choices, Democrat Mary Peltola would win with approximately 40% of the vote under a choose-one voting system. This means 60% of voters voted for either Republican Nicholas Begich or former Governor Sarah Palin.

Palin received the fewest first choice selections in the poll, meaning under ranked choice voting she  would be eliminated, and her voters would have a say in who they prefer between Begich and Peltola. To no surprise, most of her voters prefer Begich.

This is an important feature of ranked choice voting. Even if a voters’ candidate is eliminated, they still have a say in the final outcome of the election. It is how ranked choice voting better ensures majority consensus instead of allowing minority rule in elections.

Opponents of ranked choice voting often say the voting method is too complicated for voters to understand. However, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary: Voters find ranked choice voting to be simple, fair, and easy.

In 2021, for example, 77% of New York City primary voters surveyed said they supported the continued use of ranked choice voting. 61% of Maine voters said the same after the 2018 general election. Nearly all voters surveyed in Santa Fe in 2018 reported being very or somewhat satisfied with the voting method.

Nonpartisan Reform: Popular with Voters; Targeted by Those in Power

Alaska’s Ballot Measure 2 wasn’t the only comprehensive reform proposal in 2020 that combined ranked choice voting with nonpartisan primaries. Two other measures in North Dakota and Arkansas gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, but were denied access to it by the courts.

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Ballot Measure 2 faced its own legal hurdle. Alaska’s lieutenant governor and the state’s Division of Elections sued after the measure was certified in January 2020. They argued that the measure violated the state constitution’s requirement that proposed amendments deal only in one subject.

This is commonly referred to as the “single-subject rule.”

The effort failed and the Alaska Supreme Court cleared Ballot Measure 2 for the ballot, stating that all of the proposals in the measure (nonpartisan primaries, ranked choice voting, and regulating dark money) all fell under the single subject of election reform. 

"These two substantive changes are interrelated because they together ensure that voting does not revert to a two-candidate system," wrote Justice Daniel Winfree on combining open primaries with ranked choice voting.

Ballot Measure 2 survived, but the courts remain a go-to for those who wish to preserve the political status quo in the face of rising public demands for change. Other reform efforts have been brought to court under similar single-subject rules.

Is Nevada Next?

Nevada Voters First submitted over 270,000 signatures to put its nonpartisan top-five primary with ranked choice voting in the general election proposal, which the coalition has called Better Voting Nevada, on the midterm ballot. 

However, like Ballot Measure 2, powerful political forces tried to squash it.

The lawsuit against the initiative was brought by a voter who has worked on several Democratic campaigns, along with lawyers aligned with the Democratic Party. The lead attorney consulted with state Democratic lawmakers during the redistricting process and was behind legal challenges to another initiative to implement an independent redistricting commission.

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To be clear, the lawsuit against the Better Voting Nevada proposal was to protect the interests of the Democratic Party.

A Carson City judge rejected the lawsuit, stating that the “initiative’s description satisfies Nevada’s requirements as its plain language is straightforward, succinct, and non-argumentative.”

Nevada reformers submitted the signatures they gathered and the initiative was certified for the 2022 ballot in August. Under Nevada law, the proposal would amend the state constitution and would need to be approved in two subsequent elections – in 2022 and then again in 2024.

Nevada currently uses a closed partisan primary system that only allows registered party members to participate. This forces many voters to affiliate with a party just to feel like they have a meaningful say in elections, since most elections are safe for one party or the other.

“My vote counts more at the primary level, and I didn’t want to waste it,” one voter commented in a story for The Nevada Independent.

Implementing a nonpartisan primary would give these voters the freedom of choice in elections without conditioning their right to an equal vote on joining a private political organization. It would also give primary election access to the nearly 37% of registered voters who choose non-affiliation.

The top-five nonpartisan primary with ranked choice voting in the general election proposal, also called Final Five Voting, is increasingly becoming the next evolutionary step for groups seeking to combine the two election solutions. 

The Institute for Political Innovation, the group that coined the phrase Final Five Voting, is lobbying the Wisconsin legislature to pass Final Five Voting into law. It is also supporting efforts like Better Voting Nevada to get it approved at the ballot box.

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Coalitions like More Choice San Diego are also pushing for its use at the local level, which could help set the foundation to build a statewide campaign.

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