Declaration of Independents, Alaska Style

Ballot Question Two Takes on Political Partisanship

Show Notes, Transcript, Electronic Sources

October 27, 2020

The great state of Alaska is different in many ways – its vast size (two and a half times the size of Texas), low population (730,000) and great distance from “the lower 48” (states), with a thousand miles of Canadian territory in-between. 

Politics in Alaska is different as well. Far less partisan than the rest of the country, a remarkable 57% of Alaskans are registered as either non-partisan or unaffiliated voters. 

The proponents of Alaska Ballot Measure 2 would like to preserve and enhance this uniquely non-partisan political culture. This measure would create an open unified primary system through which non-partisan and unaffiliated voters have greater access; top four ranked choice voting (which research indicates can combat polarization); and greater campaign finance transparency. If passed this year, it would be one of the most comprehensive and significant reforms to state level elections in U.S. history. 

This episode of The Purple Principle features Campaign Manager of Alaskans for Better Elections Shea Siegert on both the challenges and rewards of Ballot Measure 2. The measure was recently endorsed by the League of Women Voters Alaska chapter. Yet despite the state’s history of non-partisanship, there is well organized opposition as well. 

Episode 13, “Declaration of Independents, Alaska Style”, takes measure of that and the hurdles thrown up by the COVID pandemic. Join us as The Purple Principle takes an audio cruise through our nation’s most independent-minded state, meeting notable Alaskans along the way and learning that electoral change never comes easy.  

Transcript

Shea Siegert:

We can’t make this ballot measure about a certain party. We can’t make this about a certain politician because it’s simply not.

Robert Pease (host):

That’s our featured guest today, Shea Siegert, campaign manager of Alaskans for Better Elections.1

Shea Siegert:

Its genesis was, how are we going to provide the best election system to the Alaska voter? How are we going to provide Alaska voters with the most voice, the most choice, and the most power? And we found that open primaries and ranked choice voting and financial disclosure was that way.

Robert Pease (host):

Join us on The Purple Principle today as we travel, at least by soundwave, to the great state of Alaska. I’m Robert Pease.

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

And I’m Emily Crocetti. And Alaska is a different kind of state in many ways. It’s dependent on ferry transportation, prop planes, and all kinds of snow machines.

Robert Pease (host): 

The economy is more diversified than you might expect, but based largely on mining, fishing, farming and tourism over a 5 month season, when days can get quite long, but also the oil industry. In fact, since 1982 every Alaskan gets an annual check from a fund financed by oil revenues.2 

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

And its size is different; even on a different scale. You could easily fit the next two largest states, Texas and California, inside of Alaska and still have room for Nevada and New York.3

Robert Pease (host):  

But at 730,000, the population of Alaska is about the same as the cities of Denver (and that’s just the city, not the metro area), or El Paso, Texas.4

Emily Crocetti (reporter):   

Alaska is different politically too, and the most independent or non-partisan electorate of all 50 states. Nearly 57% of Alaskans do not register for one of the two major parties.

Robert Pease (host):  

In fact, only 13% of Alaskans register as Democrats and 24% as Republicans.5

Emily Crocetti (reporter):  

And the rest choose to register as non-partisans or are classified as unaffiliated if they designate no choice.

Robert Pease (host):  

That’s 57% are non-partisan or unaffiliated, which might explain why Alaska was the most recent state to have an independent governor, Bill Walker.6

[Archival Audio, Bill Walker]

Emily Crocetti (reporter):  

Or why Alaska’s most famous political quote from the former long serving U.S. Senator, Ted Stevens, is distinctly non-partisan.7

[Archival Audio, Ted Stevens]

Emily Crocetti (reporter):   

And yes, it’s also cold in Alaska, as you might have heard. The average mid-winter temperature in Fairbanks, a city in the interior, is a bone-chilling -10 degrees Fahrenheit.8 Tough for many sports. But perfect for the official state sport of competitive sled dog racing, more commonly called dog mushing.9 

Robert Pease (host):  

But what makes Alaska so intriguing this year is that non-partisanship is on the ballot. Alaska’s Ballot Measure 2 is one of the nation’s most ambitious attempts at electoral reform in decades. It calls for the opening up of party primaries, ranked choice voting, and campaign finance transparency in a single ballot initiative.10

Emily Crocetti (reporter):  

In an earlier episode, Charles Wheelan, founder of Unite America, which supports the initiative, describes the polarization that Ballot Measure 2 aims to reverse.

[Previously recorded audio, Charles Wheelan]:

Yeah, I think that one of the scary things going on here is that you’ve got a lot of different forces at work. Anyone who’s been watching TV for more than 15 years knows that’s new, the rise of television news, where you pick your ideology; the rise of social media, where not only are you hearing the echo chamber… but think about something like gerrymandering. Now, big data allows us to gerrymander better than we used to, which means more safe seats, which means the primaries matter more. They’re more expensive races. Who do you get the money from? The people who are the most extreme. Every single force is pushing us apart. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

But this initiative is not without opposition. This comes largely from the Republican side, which currently holds the Governor’s office and the majority in the state Senate.11

Robert Pease (host):   

And some of their most creative ads have addressed the complexity of ranked choice voting, where voters rank their top four candidates, and the ultimate winner must receive more than 50% of votes.12

Emily Crocetti (reporter):  

And remember, there’s a lot of fishing in Alaska.

[Archival audio, campaign ad]

Robert Pease (host):   

Or maybe it takes guts to push through this kind of electoral reform. We spoke to campaign manager Shea Siegert several times over the past few months about the ballot measure and its prospects.  

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

Beginning with a conversation last summer, while birds were still around, and Shea was traveling to campaign events before COVID hit in full force.

Shea Siegert: 

I guess the best place to start would be in 2019 when the initiative started up. I was pretty skeptical of the ballot initiative at that point. But like I said, I was at Thanksgiving, and anytime you leave my family Thanksgiving for a phone call, you best be ready to explain what that phone call was about. And so I came back in and had to explain this thing, and actually found out that my dad was a huge supporter of policies like this. I grew up in a pretty big Catholic family, but politically very, very moderate, and always gave the two sides to the issue for education’s sake. So I explained it to him and he started actually selling me on the ballot initiative and saying, “this is a great thing. I don’t know much about it, but this sounds great.”

And so I came around on it. And ever since then, it’s been just a growing experience.  We have a policy in front of us that is a first in the country, revolutionizing the way people feel about their votes and the power they hold with their votes. And it’s really been pretty amazing to see, to have all of these premonitions about whether or not this can pass and then realize, Oh, wow, these things really, really resonate with quite a few people.

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit about, you know,  Alaska has this rich history of being politically independent, but what does that mean in terms of this ballot measure?

Shea Siegert: 

Yeah, so the late Senator Stevens has this amazing, amazing quote that says “to hell with politics.” And you hear that a lot. You saw Governor Walker in 2014 run on “Alaska first.” When you’re the head of a construction crew, you’re not going to ask your best worker what party they are before you put them to work. When you are out in the wilderness and you are running into trouble and need to call in a helicopter to come get you out of there, you’re not going to ask the pilot what party he is. And so that rings true in our politics. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

No, that’s something we talk about a lot on this podcast, trying to get away from that two-party spiral. 

Shea Siegert: 

I mean, one really important portion to this ballot initiative is the open primaries portion. I’m a registered non-partisan, and I came to being a non-partisan from the right. I was a registered Republican since I was 18. And then in 2016, I decided I needed to become a non-partisan. And when I go to vote in the Alaska primary system, as it stands right now, the state says, I know you chose to not register with either party, but today, to vote, you have to pick between the Republican party ballot or the open party ballot, which is colloquially referred to as the Democratic ballot. However, if someone wins in the Democratic primary, they become, on the ballot in the general election, Democratic party nominee, Joe Schmoe. And so my candidates are normally petitioned candidates, and I don’t ever get to see them on a ballot unless they want to run in the general as the Democratic party nominee, and that’s a problem. 

Robert Pease (host): 

That’s our featured guest today, Shea Siegert, he’s the campaign manager of Alaskans for Better Elections.

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

They are advocating passage of Ballot Measure 2, creating a fully open and unified primary, where the majority of Alaska voters can express their preference for candidates from any party.13  

Robert Pease (host): 

And also ranked choice voting, which only the state of Maine has so far. But it is also on the ballot this year in Florida and Massachusetts.14 

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

In Alaska’s case, the ballot initiative proposes top-four ranked choice voting, and this is for state wide elections. 

Robert Pease (host):

This means that general election voters rank the four candidates in order of preference from one to four.  

Emily Crocetti (reporter):  

And, if the top candidate does not receive 50% of first place votes, then the second-place votes from the fourth-place candidate are allocated. 

Robert Pease (host):

And possibly the same thing from the third-place candidate.

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

And this happens until someone receives 50% or more of the vote. So it’s kind of like what large families do when deciding where to have Thanksgiving or a family reunion. 

Robert Pease (host):

Top choices count, but so do compromise locations as well.

Emily Crocetti (reporter):  

Ballot Question 2 also calls for campaign finance transparency for donations over $2,000.15

Robert Pease (host):  

With so much stalemate around the country, it may be hard to imagine how such an ambitious initiative made it onto the ballot.

Emily Crocetti (reporter):  

And in fact, the Alaska Supreme Court had to rule in favor of the ballot measure after a suit was filed against it by the State Attorney General.16

Robert Pease (host):   

The non-profit organization FairVote has been working to advance ranked choice voting in the U.S. for three decades now, with city level passage in Oakland, Portland, Maine, and Minneapolis, among other cities.17

Emily Crocetti (reporter):  

But FairVote Outreach Director Scott Siebel is also cautionary about pushback from partisan incumbents of either party.18

Scott Siebel:

We work with people all across the political spectrum, and we firmly believe that the policy that we push is very non-partisan. But when people that are very much, you know, Republicans or very much Democrats, sometimes they can be wary of us or anybody that’s saying this is a very non-partisan policy. So again, the people want it, but politicians end up sometimes pushing against it. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter):  

Remember, though, Alaska is different. With 57% non-partisan or unaffiliated voters.

Robert Pease (host):    

Which might explain why Alaska’s long-serving Senator Lisa Murkowksi launched a write-in campaign in 2010 after losing the primary to a Tea Party Republican. 

[Archival Audio, Lisa Murkowski]

Robert Pease (host):    

And why she went on to win that write-in campaign, the first time in 70 years for a U.S. Senate seat.19

[Archival Audio, Lisa Murkowski]

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

Or why current Senate candidate Al Gross, who declared as independent, is currently running a competitive race versus Republican incumbent Dan Sullivan.20

[Archival Audio, Al Gross]

Robert Pease (host):

We caught up with Shea again this fall after the ballot measure had gained the endorsement of the most important non-partisan group in the United States, both today and for the last hundred years or so.

Shea Siegert: 

Two days ago we actually received the full endorsement of the League of Women Voters Alaska chapter.21 This is quite a big deal, being that the last time any sort of ranked choice voting was put to question in Alaska, that was 2002, the League of Women Voters Alaska chapter actually paired up with the Lieutenant Governor at the time and wrote the statement of opposition, which showed up on the ballot to voters.22 And so that was 18 years ago that they wrote the statement of opposition against a ballot measure that tried to institute ranked choice voting in Alaska’s elections. And now, in 2020, they have come out in full support and are drafting a statement of support for us. And so this endorsement comes at a very crucial time. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

So now that you have their blessing, so to speak, their support, but what do you do tactically with that? 

Shea Siegert: 

We’re going to be putting their logo and their word of endorsement on mailers, in our TV ads, in our radio ads. And then also in conversations with folks who are on the fence. And so what we’re going to do is share with those people who are on the fence, that the League of Women Voters has come out in support And time and time again, we normally find that folks look and see the League supporting and say, okay, that decides it for me.

Robert Pease (host):

So can you possibly estimate in terms of where you are in polling? What kind of a bump that could potentially give you?

Shea Siegert: 

It’s looking like it could give us about a five point bump.23 Right now we’re polling very, very well. We’ve been in the upper sixties across six polls since early in 2019. However, now that we have a formal opposition, a well-funded opposition against us, they’re going to try and move that needle. Now on ballot measures, it’s a lot easier to move that needle because it’s a lot easier to tear something down, than it is to provide a solution. And we’re providing a solution, and our opponents are coming after us saying, “well, this is too confusing. This is going to be bad for Alaska”, but yet they never say anything about our policy. They never want to get into a political discussion.

Robert Pease (host): 

That was our featured guest this episode, Shea Siegert, talking about the endorsement of League of Women Voters, among other groups, for Ballot Measure 2 in Alaska. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

And remember, Alaska is different. With only 13% registered Democrats, 24% registered Republicans, and 57% non-partisan or unaffiliated. 

Robert Pease (host): 

For example, in 2016, for the first time in decades, the Alaska State Legislature flipped from Republican control to a bipartisan coalition of Democrats, Independents and moderate Republicans.24

Emily Crocetti (reporter):  

But as independent as Alaska may be, change may still not come easy.

Robert Pease (host):  

The non-profit  group Open Primaries has been working to enfranchise independent or non-partisan voters around the nation for two decades. The group’s President, John Opdycke, knows a thing or two about the benefits of open primaries.25

[Previously recorded audio, John Opdycke]

Politicians who get elected in open public primary systems are much better elected officials. They actually are incentivized to work with members of the other party, to reach across the aisle, to build coalitions with people they disagree with, to focus on governing and passing, you know, good policy. Candidates that get elected in these closed partisan primaries – they have absolutely no incentive to govern, to represent their constituents. Their job is to represent the 5-10% of partisan warriors that get them elected every two years in the primary. That’s all they care about. It’s not because they’re evil people or stupid people. That’s how the election system is set up. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter):   

But Opdycke also knows that political parties will push back against that loss of control. He recalls a statewide 2014 referendum in Oregon that polled well but went down in a disappointing defeat.26

[Previously recorded audio, John Opdycke] 

Yeah, calling it a disappointment is kind of an understatement. It was a crushing defeat and it was a great learning experience. And I say that the biggest takeaway from this, that the biggest thing we learned is that if you’re going to take control of the primaries away from the Democratic and Republican parties, you better be ready for a fight.

Robert Pease (host):  

Again, in the case of Alaska Ballot Measure 2, most of the opposition seems  to come from the Republican side, which currently holds the Governor’s office.

Emily Crocetti (reporter):   

We asked Shea about some of the other tough challenges facing the initiative, including why the Republican party with twice as many registered voters as Democrats, opposes the initiative.

Shea Siegert: 

Yeah, that’s an interesting thing. I think they really worry about the fact that they won’t have control over the party anymore, or over elections anymore, you know, with us going from a closed primary system. Under the current system, they can really say, we’re going to put this number of candidates in and they can play games with the elections. And I don’t think they want to release that power.

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

So that’s obviously fairly strong opposition from the Republican party. What is the picture on the Democratic side? 

Shea Siegert: 

The Alaska state Democratic party has not struck a decision on Ballot Measure 2. It’s likely that they’ll stay neutral on it. And what we’re finding is that a few Democratic operatives really don’t like these reforms, they really don’t want to give up the power, but the problem is that the Democratic voters, just like the Republican voters, really support Ballot Measure 2. We find that when you poll the general masses, versus just the party headquarters, that we have a lot more support in the general masses. 

Robert Pease (host):

Alright, let’s turn to ranked choice voting, then. We’re based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, right across the bridge from Maine, which was the first state in the country to have ranked choice voting for national office. There was some confusion on that, the first time around. Are you finding that people there readily understand ranked choice voting, or does it need a lot of explanation?

Shea Siegert:

People understand it after you speak with them. It does have to be explained a little bit more, not in terms of – and it’s really important – not in terms of how to vote. Every voter in the United States knows how to count to four. As we say, it really comes down to, they want to know, they have a general curiosity about how votes are tabulated and how they work. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

And, you talked about the importance of being able to explain these things, and I would imagine that would be easier to do person-to-person. So, are you able to do that, and if so, how, during COVID?

Shea Siegert:

We have done two in-person events. We have tried to cut it down as much as possible, and we’re not doing any in-person events anymore. So what COVID has done for this campaign is – I’m a perpetual optimist. So I look at the opportunities versus the restrictions, and the opportunity is, this morning at 8:00 AM, I was on a radio show in Utqiagvik, Barrow, which is the Northernmost point of Alaska. I followed that up by doing a presentation in Juneau to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, and then did a recording on a radio show in Kenai and Fairbanks. At all of these places, I wouldn’t have been able to be in all of these places in a single day. It would be like having a meeting in Illinois and then having one in El Paso, Texas, in terms of mileage and how far these places are apart from each other. 

Robert Pease (host):

So, you had mentioned, you’ve had a number of polls where 60% of respondents have been in favor. Let’s talk a bit about the 40% who were not in favor in those polls. Do they tend to be in certain regions, or are they a certain age group? What are the characteristics of that group?

Shea Siegert:

Yeah, it’s really interesting. They tend to be… it’s kind of rough because 10% of that 40% as you brought up, 10% of them are just undecided, or just simply haven’t heard of the issue. The remaining 30%, I would say, they may like one topic that we bring up, but they’re not necessarily ready to make this jump from what they know. People have an internal fear of what they don’t know; all of us do. 

Robert Pease (host):

That’s very true, and there’s obviously a lot going on at the national level. You’re certainly a distance away from Washington, D.C., but does it feel a little closer to Washington during a presidential election year, when a Supreme court justice dies, or do you feel like Alaskans can put that aside and just focus on their ballot measure?

Shea Siegert:

I think they focus on it more with everything that’s going on in Washington. I was having a conversation with my mother who lives in Boise, Idaho the other day. And she said, you know, every time I look at the news, I think about your ballot measure. And it just makes more and more sense. What we’re seeing in Alaska, and when Alaskans look at the news, you know, we’re very dedicated to keeping Alaska being a state where we take care of each other. If someone’s broken down on the side of the road, then someone’s going to stop and ask them if they can change their tire for them or help in any way. It’s not a state where you drive by, and it’s not a state where you get out of your car and then ask them, Hey, what party are you? And if they say what you want, then you help them out. That’s not how it is in Alaska. And so I would say that in terms of proximity to Washington, D.C., we’re a safe distance away. 

Robert Pease (host):

That was Shea Siegert, campaign manager of Alaskans for Better Elections.

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

Alaska is different, our least partisan state. But is it non-partisan enough to pass this ambitious electoral reform?  

Robert Pease (host): 

We’ll check back on Alaska’s Declaration of Independence in a few weeks when the votes are counted. We hope you’ll tune in to that, share us on social media, share your purple tales at purpleprinciple.com. This has been Robert Pease and Emily Crocetti for the Purple Principle team. Kevin A. Kline, Audio Engineer; Janice Murphy, marketing & outreach; research and fact-checking by Emily Holloway and Johnnie Dowling; original music composed and created by Ryan Adair Rooney.

Electronic Sources

Alaskans for Better Elections – Yes on 2 for Better Elections 

The Economic Value of Alaska’s Seafood Industry

Permanent Fund Division  

Geography of Alaska 

US Census Bureau QuickFacts: Alaska 

Alaska Voter Registration by Party/Precinct (Oct. 2020).

Gov. Bill Walker 

Karen Breslau (11/19/08), “How Alaska Will Remember Sen. Ted Stevens” Newsweek. 

Fairbanks – Alaska and Weather averages Fairbanks. U.S. Climate Data.

Alaska State Sport: Dog Mushing. State Symbols USA.

“Alaska’s Better Elections Initiative.” Alaska Board of Elections. 

Nat Herz (10/15/20). “Gov. Dunleavy says he’ll vote no on oil tax increase, election overhaul initiatives.” KTOO.

“Ranked Choice Voting 101.” FairVote. 

“State Primary Election Types.” National Council of State Legislatures. 

Florida Amendment 3, Top-Two Open Primaries for State Offices Initiative (2020). Ballotpedia.  

Massachusetts Question 2, Ranked-Choice Voting Initiative (2020). Ballotpedia. 

“Initiative Petition to the Secretary of State, State of North Dakota.” 

Andrew Kitchenman (10/28/19). “Judge approves signature gathering for initiative that would change state elections.” Alaska Daily News. 

James Brooks (6/12/20). “Alaska Supreme Court approves election-reform ballot measure.” Alaska Daily News. 

“Our Story.” FairVote. 

“Scott Siebel.” FairVote. 

William Yardley (11/17/10). “Lisa Murkowski wins Alaska Senate Race.” The New York Times. 

Alaska Polls. FiveThirtyEight .

Judy Andree (10/19/20). “League of Women Voters of Alaska supports Ballot Measure 2 — here’s why.” Juneau Empire. 

State of Alaska Voter Election Guide (2002). Alaska Board of Elections. 

Alaska Ballot Measure 2. Ballotpedia.

Thomas R. Lucas (10/20/20). “Staff Report, 20-05-CD, Yes on 2 for Better Elections v. Brett Huber, Protect My Ballot, and Alaska Policy Forum.” Alaska Department of Administration. 

Matt Buxton (10/6/20). “Group opposing election reform says it found one weird trick to hide big-money contributions from voters.” The Midnight Sun.  

Nathaniel Herz (11/12/16). “Alaska House will be run by coalition while Senate remains under Republican control.” Alaska Daily News.  

John Opdycke. Open Primaries.

Oregon Open Primary Initiative, Measure 90 (2014). Ballotpedia.

1994
2017

In 1986, 34 Democratic and 29 Republican Senators signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, creating a citizenship path for illegal immigrants while making it a Federal crime to employ illegal workers. The House also voted in favor, 238 to 173. The bill was signed into law on November 6, 1986. 

congress.gov

In 1972, 17 Republican Senators joined 35 Democratic Senators to override the Nixon Administration veto of the Clean Water Act, a landmark piece of environmental legislation. The House override vote was 247 to 23, including 96 Republicans and 151 Democrats in the majority.

govtrack.us

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