Alaska’s new election system is moving us toward more productive politics

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One thing I love about Alaska is how our huge state can feel so small. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone in (or from) Alaska who didn’t share a mutual friend or two, if we compared notes long enough.

That social interconnectedness makes life easier. Need a tool or piece of equipment? If your friends don’t have it, they know someone who does. Want to make a professional connection to pitch a new product or service? A little legwork almost certainly nets you a personal introduction.

This is one reason I’m optimistic about the election system Alaska voters approved in 2020. Partisan politics is tearing our country apart, and it’s sadder when it burns bridges between friends and neighbors who should rely on one another in their daily lives. Though I’ve now withdrawn, running for an Alaska Senate seat this year helped convince me that open primaries and ranked choice voting are already making a positive difference.

I decided to run for office because I want our community to be safe, happy and full of opportunity. The three changes I think are most crucial are greater fiscal stability, reduced cost of living (particularly for housing and child care) and quality education.

I was running for priorities I care about and think are important, not against anyone else’s priorities; and my impression is that each of my (former) opponents are in a similar boat.

This isn’t the end of partisanship. Candidates are still incentivized to point out their strengths and opponents’ weaknesses. In races with only two serious candidates, many of the old incentive structures have changed little, if at all. But in many races, personal attacks now risk alienating voters who would have selected you as their second choice. Perhaps more importantly, there is a direct benefit to finding reasons to celebrate areas of alignment, as candidates are campaigning to be the second choice for others’ supporters.

Rewarding candidates for appealing to a maximum number of voters in their district (instead of their party’s primary) was central to the argument for our new elections system. What surprised me, however, is that after I withdrew from the race, I realized that I liked each of my former opponents more than when the race started.

I’ve come up with an analogy for why I think this is: Our old elections functioned like a boxing match. Each voter gives their side a little more power, and removing a vote for an opposing side was just as valuable as adding a vote for your side (which was brutal for third-party candidates, who stole votes from the candidate they were closer to). The goal wasn’t to be the best, it was to beat your opponent.

Our new elections system functions like a footrace. The goal shifted from outlasting your opponent to being first to the finish line — and you all have the same destination. Each candidate is trying to get more than 50% of the same pool of voters, so instead of wearing the other side down, as one candidate picks up the pace, the others have to keep up.

In a fight, you don’t want to empathize with your opponent, what hurts them helps you (and vice versa). In a footrace, you aren’t necessarily trying to help your opponents, but you are encouraged to draft off of their strengths (and learn about why some of your neighbors think highly of them). It worked on me; I heard a lot to like about all three of the other candidates in Senate District J.

Alaska and Anchorage need a strong private sector, vibrant ecosystems, dependable infrastructure, efficient government, and effective education. We don’t need two parties with opposing views on everything. One priority needing work doesn’t reduce the importance of others. We need elections that pick the candidates who can get us the furthest toward all of the above, and our new structure feels like a step in that direction.

Drew Cason is a former candidate for Senate District J in Anchorage, as well as a former legislative aide. He now works as a policy and advocacy consultant.

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