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Alaska judge to expedite ruling on campaign ethics violations by ranked choice voting opponents

Mar. 16—An Alaska judge will rule months before the November election on the legality of a decision by state campaign regulators to punish opponents of Alaska's voting system. The review follows an appeal of the decision last month.

The Alaska Public Offices Commission ruled in January that leaders of an effort to repeal Alaska's open primary and ranked choice voting system violated state law when they funneled their campaign money through an organization registered as a church in Washington state.

APOC commissioners fined the leaders of the ballot effort more than $94,000 for violations of campaign disclosure requirements, and ordered them to publicly disclose the sources of their funding.

The opponents of Alaska's voting system appealed APOC's decision to the Anchorage Superior Court in February, arguing that they should not have to pay part of the fines or disclose the identity of the contributors to the Washington church through which they continue to funnel their funding.

Under a normal course of events, a judge would rule on the appeal next year. But Superior Court Judge Laura Hartz agreed to a request to expedite the process that came from supporters of Alaska's voting system.

Hartz said in an order issued Friday that the court would issue a decision in June, months before the question on repealing Alaska's voting system is set to appear before voters.

The decision will shed light on "what information voters are entitled to know in terms of the identities of individual donors and groups financially supporting a ballot initiative," Hartz said in her order. "To answer that question after the 2024 election is over raises legitimate concerns for Alaskans voters in their preparation to vote and on Election Day."

The effort to repeal Alaska's voting system was led by Wasilla resident Phillip Izon and Anchorage insurance agent and minister Art Mathias. By their own account, Mathias was the primary sponsor of a 15-month effort to repeal the state's voting system, which itself was adopted by ballot measure in 2020, and first used in 2022.

Mathias and Izon were both involved in forming a church in Washington state, through which Mathias' contributions were funneled. The move allowed them to shield the true source of funding on campaign materials, according to the commission's findings. It also potentially allowed Mathias to save thousands of dollars in federal taxes by funneling his contributions through an untaxed religious organization, though tax-related questions are not handled by the Alaska commission.

Under the new voting system, Alaskans vote in open, nonpartisan primaries. The top four vote-getters in each primary, regardless of political affiliation, advance to a general election, in which voters can rank the candidates by order of preference. To win outright, a candidate must garner more than 50% of votes. Otherwise, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and their votes are redistributed among the other candidates according to voters' indicated preferences. This process is repeated until a winner is selected.

Opponents of the system are seeking to return to Alaska's former voting method, in which each political party held a separate primary. Then, a single candidate from each political party advanced to a general election in which voters could choose a single candidate. The top vote-getter is then declared the winner, regardless of whether the candidate won a majority of votes.

Izon and Mathias launched their effort to repeal Alaska's voting system shortly after the November 2022 election. While they publicly said their effort was nonpartisan, during events and on their social media accounts they have repeatedly bemoaned the victories of Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola over her conservative Republican opponents and the victory of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who beat out a more conservative challenger.

Izon, Mathias and other opponents of ranked choice voting said they were concerned that the voting method disadvantaged conservative Republicans, and that it was a confusing system that disenfranchised voters through its complexity.

Supporters of Alaska's new voting method say it discourages extremism on both ends of the political spectrum and encourages elected officials to work together and seek support from a broad swath of the electorate, rather than appealing to an ideologically entrenched base.