How 2024 Could Transform American Elections - 11 minutes read

The nation’s tiniest state legislative chamber has been unusually prolific lately. In its most recent session, Alaska’s Senate overcame years of acrimony and deadlock to pass major bills to increase spending on public schools, combat climate change and a state energy shortage, and strengthen penalties for drug dealers. “The universal feeling,” Cathy Giessel, the senate’s majority leader, told me, “was that this was the most productive two years that we have experienced.”

Giessel, a Republican who first took office in 2010, attributes this success not to her colleagues, exactly, but to how they were chosen. In 2022, Alaska became the first state to experiment with a new kind of election. All candidates—regardless of party—competed against one another in the primary, and the top four vote-getters advanced. In November, the winner was determined by ranked-choice voting, in which people list candidates by order of preference. The system—called Final Four Voting—gave a substantial boost to moderates from both parties. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski won a fourth term, and a centrist Democrat defeated Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice-presidential nominee, capturing a House seat that Republicans had held for a half century.

But Final Four had an even bigger impact in the state Senate, where Democrats narrowed the GOP’s long-standing majority. Giessel, who had lost in a traditional primary two years earlier, won her seat back. She and seven of her colleagues ditched three far-right GOP lawmakers to form a governing coalition with Democrats. The group decided to set aside divisive social issues such as abortion and gender identity and focus exclusively on areas where they could find common ground.

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The legislative dealmaking that ensued was exactly what the designers of Final Four Voting had hoped for when Alaskans approved the system in a 2020 statewide referendum. In essence, Final Four is a radical reform designed to de-radicalize politics. Its purpose is to make general elections more competitive and to encourage compromise among lawmakers who had previously held on to power simply by catering to a small, polarized primary electorate that determines the winners of most modern campaigns. This year could be an inflection point for the reform: Four more states—ranging from blue to deep red—could adopt versions of Final Four, and Alaskans will vote on whether to repeal it. In November, voters frustrated with both parties will have a chance to transform the way they pick their leaders—or quash what reformers hope will be the future of American elections.

Final Four isn’t inherently ideological, but it appeals most to voters frustrated with polarization—“normal people who want normal things done,” as Scott Kendall, a former Murkowski aide who led the 2020 campaign to adopt Final Four in Alaska, put it to me.

The ideas that make up Alaska’s system aren’t new. California and Washington State have had nonpartisan primaries for years, and South Dakota voters could approve them in November. Maine has ranked-choice voting for federal elections; Oregon could adopt ranked voting this fall. But Alaska is the first state to combine the two reforms. Final Four backers hope that many more will follow, and they are pouring millions of dollars into ballot initiatives this year to expand it to Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, and Montana.

A sweep for Final Four would reshape not only state capitols but also Washington, D.C., where the system would, in the coming years, elect up to 10 of the U.S. Senate’s 100 members. Representing a combination of red and blue states, they could “form a problem-solving fulcrum” to address challenges that typically resist compromise, Katherine Gehl, who devised Final Four Voting and has spent millions of dollars campaigning for it, told me. “You really can see in Congress a difference with as few as 10 senators,” she said, citing comprehensive immigration reform as an example.

To gain a firmer foothold, advocates of Final Four must clear a number of obstacles. Critics say the system is too confusing for voters to grasp and too complicated for election officials to administer. They also question whether the reform enjoys the broad public support that its wealthy backers claim it does. The proposal faces bipartisan opposition in Nevada. In Alaska, critics on the right hope to scrap the system in its infancy.

And don’t get Colorado started.

The state’s Democratic and Republican parties disagree on virtually everything—except, that is, their shared loathing of Final Four Voting and the businessman, Kent Thiry, who’s trying to bring it to their state. The former CEO of the Denver-based dialysis company DaVita, Thiry has funded successful ballot drives to overhaul political primaries and enable nonpartisan redistricting in Colorado. He’s also a co-chair of the reform group Unite America, which is funding efforts to expand Final Four in other states. Thiry believes that in a year in which most voters don’t like their choices for president, the Final Four movement can “surf that wave of discontent” and offer people in Colorado and elsewhere an opportunity to vote for something new.

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To Shad Murib, the Democratic Party chair in Colorado, Thiry is simply tossing “a hand grenade” into an election system that voters in the state already like. “It’s a way to rig elections for the highest bidder,” he told me, arguing that doing away with party primaries makes it easier for wealthier candidates to buy their way onto the ballot.

David Williams, the chair of the state’s Republican Party, sees the proposal the same way. The highest bidder, he told me, would be Thiry himself. “This is the one thing me and my counterpart agree on,” Williams told me. “This guy wants to destroy both political parties so that he can get elected.”

Thiry considered a run for governor in 2018, but he told me he was ruling out a bid in 2026. Critics of Final Four, he said, are using his past flirtations with a campaign “as an excuse to not discuss the actual substance of the issue.”

What he doesn’t deny, however, is that reforms such as Final Four are designed to reduce the power of the two major parties. He compares American democracy, rather floridly, to a highway. “The parties control all the on-ramps and the off-ramps, and the toll that they charge in order to get on a democracy highway is kowtowing to the far left or the far right and relatively ignoring the majority in the middle,” Thiry said. “We intend to blow through the toll gates and take back possession of that highway.”

How much voters want this kind of change remains to be seen. Final Four owes its support less to a grassroots movement than to a series of expensive persuasion campaigns funded by a group of wealthy philanthropists. In most cases, they are going around state legislatures, where party leaders aren’t interested in reforms that could threaten their rule.

In Colorado, Democrats say the voting system doesn’t need fixing. Participation in its all-mail elections is already among the highest in the nation, and its Democratic governor and senators are relatively moderate dealmakers. “It’s a solution in search of a problem,” Representative Diana DeGette, a Democrat and the longest-serving member of Colorado’s congressional delegation, told me. To head off Final Four, the state legislature passed a bill that could block voter-approved election reforms from taking effect for years, or possibly forever. Final Four backers are urging the governor, Jared Polis, to veto it.

On top of being unnecessary, critics see the system as a tool of wealthy centrists looking to carve a path to high office for themselves and their allies. But reformers point out that campaigns now aren’t exactly the province of the poor or even of the middle class. Rich people already have a leg up, including in Colorado. Polis, for example, is a tech entrepreneur who spent more than $20 million of his own money to win the post in 2018 after self-funding his first bid for Congress a decade earlier. “They’re just wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong,” Gehl told me about Final Four’s critics. The system guarantees that four candidates make the November ballot instead of two, she pointed out. “If you double the number of people who can get into Disney World, how does that decrease access?” she said.

In Alaska so far, Final Four hasn’t shown much preference for wealthy office-seekers; indeed, it has seemed to attract candidates from underrepresented backgrounds. In 2022, an Alaska Native won a seat in Congress for the first time, and more women ran for office than in the five previous cycles combined. “The open primary blows the doors open not just for women but for minorities,” Giessel said. “It changes the game completely.”

The debut of Final Four in Alaska had its challenges. The sudden death of 88-year-old Representative Don Young on a plane flight in March 2022 opened up Alaska’s lone House seat for the first time since he took office, in 1973, and forced the state to roll out its new system in a special election months earlier than planned.

“It felt like chaos,” Kendall, the Final Four campaigner, told me. Mary Peltola, a centrist and a Murkowski ally, ran as a Democrat and defeated both Palin and another Republican, Nick Begich, through ranked-choice voting. Although the two Republicans collectively earned more votes than Peltola in the initial tally, more than one-quarter of Begich’s voters ranked the Democrat above Palin.

Republicans responded to the defeat by bashing ranked-choice voting, echoing the GOP’s opposition to the system in Maine, where voters approved it after two victories by the Trumpian Governor Paul LePage. Critics of Alaska’s system have succeeded in gathering enough signatures to place a repeal measure on the ballot in November, which Kendall is fighting in court.

Phillip Izon, who is running the repeal drive, told me that the system in Alaska is “fundamentally flawed” and would require “generations” of voter education before people could adequately understand it. He cited the high number of voters who refused to rank their candidates during the special election, and a subsequent drop in turnout in the November midterms. “They say it’s cheaper. They say it’s faster. They say it helps third parties,” he said. “And none of this is true.”

Read: A radical idea for fixing polarization

Central to Izon’s critique is the sense that Alaskans didn’t really want Final Four to begin with. In 2020, the transformation of the state’s election system was packaged into a single ballot question with other proposed changes, most notably a popular push to ban “dark money” in state campaigns. Voters, Izon argued, had been “brainwashed” into approving Final Four. Izon told me that he is not registered with either party and doesn’t want his effort to be labeled as partisan. But a video on his campaign’s website leads with quotes from Donald Trump, who has denounced “ranked choice crap voting” as “a total rigged deal.”

Backers of the system say Izon is misstating or exaggerating his claims. “There was no hiding the ball,” Kendall told me, referring to the 2020 referendum. Nor did Republicans get wiped out under Final Four in 2022. Although they lost the House seat to Peltola and a few seats in the legislature, conservative Governor Mike Dunleavy easily won reelection. “We had a lot more opponents the last time around than we do now,” Kendall said.

Yet the champions of Final Four are clearly unnerved by the repeal effort, worrying that it could stunt the idea’s momentum not only in Alaska but elsewhere. The fact that Alaskans could ditch the system so quickly offers opponents in other states a handy talking point. In Nevada, for example, voters approved a version of the system (with five final-round candidates instead of four) in 2022, but under the state’s constitution, they must do so again this fall for it to take effect. “Change is hard. New is hard, and making the case in a crowded year is hard,” Gehl said.

When I spoke with Thiry, he also seemed prepared for some defeats. “Voters are appropriately going to not just run off to the first fancy and new idea that they hear or see,” he said. “If you look at the history of movements in America, every one that we looked at took some heavy hits early on, but they persevered. And we have every intention of doing the same.”

Source: The Atlantic

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