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EDITORIAL: The simple fix Anchorage municipal elections need

Mar. 30—There are still a few days left until Election Day in Anchorage's municipal races, but for the race at the top of the ticket, it's not exactly a mystery what will happen. Given that there are 10 candidates for mayor, no one is likely to achieve the 45% threshold, meaning the bottom eight candidates will be eliminated and Anchorage will hold a runoff election for the top two vote-getters a month later. If the mayor's race goes to a runoff, as appears likely, it will be the third time in Anchorage's past four mayoral elections where that will have been the case.

If only there were some kind of a system that could prevent these repetitive and costly runoff elections. It would be better yet if such a system could eliminate the tendency of voters to settle on the most "electable" candidates rather than the ones they most support, because they want to ensure a palatable option advances to the runoff. And better still if the system were familiar to Alaskans, so that the learning curve for voters wouldn't prove daunting.

If all of this sounds familiar, it should: Ranked choice voting, which Alaskans have experienced at the state level for the past two statewide elections, would be a far more sensible system for municipal elections than the current first-past-the-post method. Its other name, "instant runoff" voting, is a tip-off that this is exactly the system that would free us from having to rush into another election immediately after the first one is certified.

Given that municipal elections are (at least nominally) nonpartisan, there are no primary elections beforehand and thus no need to implement open primaries, the other positive change at the statewide level — in fact, the crowded mayoral race shows that there aren't substantial barriers to hopefuls seeking the Municipality's top job. But the mayor's races do suffer from the spoiler effect common to the first-past-the-post system, where minor candidates who are ideologically aligned with frontrunners can torpedo the more popular candidates' chances by splitting the pool of like-minded voters. And on the flip side of that coin, obvious frontrunners effectively doom the chances of minor candidates, as voters fearful of the splitting effect will hedge their bets and consolidate behind the most popular candidates, even if those candidates aren't their ideal pick.

With ranked choice voting, this kind of cynical triangulation wouldn't be necessary. Voters could pick their top four choices for mayor and, as in state races, the last-place candidates' voters could be reallocated based on their next choices until a candidate passed the threshold — which could be a clear majority rather than the current 45% plurality standard, giving the elected mayor more of a mandate with which to govern. The system could also encourage more participation in down-ballot races such as Assembly and School Board seats, which under the current method sometimes go uncontested.

The change to a new voting system might be a heavy lift for the municipality if it were leading the charge, but ranked choice voting has been in place at the state level since 2022, giving voters multiple opportunities to familiarize themselves. Indeed, after Alaskans had the chance to use the system for the first time to pick a replacement for Rep. Don Young, 85% reported that the process was "simple." After the 2022 general election, 60% of voters said the system made races more competitive — another positive outcome. At a hearing for Rep. Sarah Vance's bill to repeal ranked-choice voting (Vance is a member of one group of Alaskans among whom RCV isn't popular: hardcore partisans in more moderate districts), public comment ran 3-to-1 in favor of keeping the system.

At this point, unifying the systems used at the state and local levels would likely stave off more confusion than it would engender. And there's the matter of the savings in time, effort and money by obviating the need for runoff elections, which cost Anchorage taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars each time they occur (the bill for 2021′s runoff election: $314,905).

Changing to ranked choice voting for statewide elections was a great start. It's time for the Municipality of Anchorage to follow suit and save itself — and voters — a fair chunk of time and money.