JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Drag performers moved back and forth down an aisle between cafe tables as enthusiastic patrons snapped photos, waved cash and filled out tickets ranking shows.
The mock election, fueled by performances that roared through an Anchorage, Alaska cafe, was intended to educate voters about the state’s new ranked-choice voting system.
The first ranked ballot election under a series of Alaska voter-approved election changes in 2020 will be the August 16 U.S. House of Representatives special election with Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich and Democrat Mary Peltola.
Organizations have gotten creative in trying to help voters understand how to cast their ballot, as the mock election with drag performers shows.
Under ranked voting, ballots are counted in rounds. A candidate can win outright with more than 50% of the votes in the first round. If no one reaches that threshold, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Voters who chose that candidate as their first choice count their votes for their next election. The rounds continue until there are two candidates left and the one with the most votes wins.
Leaders of some of the efforts see their work as critical to getting voters comfortable with ranked voting, whether they like the system or not, and to help prevent large numbers of votes from being thrown away because were issued incorrectly.
“In the spirit of democracy, you need to at least understand how this works,” said Bernadette Wilson, state director for Americans for Prosperity-Alaska. The group opposed the 2020 ballot initiative but “we lost,” she said. The new system is “the law of the land, and elections are coming.”
While Americans for Prosperity Action-Alaska has endorsed Begich, Wilson has avoided using actual candidates as examples in videos he has posted on Facebook explaining the system, opting instead to demonstrate it with colorful sticky notes on a whiteboard. She also gave a presentation and question-and-answer session at an Anchorage theater, an event sponsored by an educational wing of the group, Americans for Prosperity Foundation.
A commenter on one of Wilson’s posts said: “I’m glad she understands. Clear as mud to me.
Wilson said he wonders how many people are at risk of filling out their ballot incorrectly and having it rejected because they “read a comment on Facebook somewhere” or received the wrong information from a friend.
Maine uses ranked-choice voting in statewide primaries and general elections for federal office. But Alaska’s unique system combines open primaries with qualifying voting general elections. The top four finishers in each primary race, regardless of party affiliation, advance to the general election.
Supporters see the ranked election as a way to give voters more choice and cause candidates to seek support beyond their traditional bases.
Three candidates are in the House special election after election officials and the courts determined that independent Al Gross, who finished third in the special primary, dropped out of the race too late for Republican Tara Sweeney, who finished fifth, he could vote in his place.
The winner will serve out the remainder of late Rep. Don Young’s term, which ends early next year. Young died in March.
The special election will be on one side of the ballot. The other side will feature regular primary races, in which voters select one candidate per race.
Palin, in a recent forum, called the classified vote “convoluted” and complicated and said it should be changed. Former President Donald Trump, who endorsed Palin, at a rally in Anchorage last month called the classified election a “rigged deal.”
Palin’s campaign did not respond to questions from The Associated Press about whether the campaign is trying to help voters understand the system or encourage them to classify themselves in a certain way. Neither did Peltola’s. Peltola, at the forum, said that she was hopeful about the new system.
Begich said his job is to make sure voters mark him first. Begich, who said he would like to see Alaska go back to its old system, said he is focused on campaigning and leaving education about the process to others.
The Alaska Division of Elections, which oversees elections, has produced announcements, videos, flyers, and explanations online. But one gubernatorial candidate, Democrat Les Gara, said one of his emails risks misleading people because he uses a mock state Senate race as an example of a ranked election when state legislative races will not be ranked. in August. A spokesman for the division did not respond to the criticism.
Some of the outreach efforts are political. For example, the National Republican Congressional Committee in a video encourages voters to “keep the Democrat blank” and only rank Republicans in the House special election.
The Alaska Democratic Party urges voters to “rank the candidates that most align with your values.”
The Central Alaska Education Fund, a nonpartisan arm of the progressive-leaning Central Alaska, helped sponsor the recent “Drag out the Vote” event in Anchorage. Kyla Kosednar, the fund’s advocacy director, said the fund’s work this year is focused on young and first-time voters.
“We try to add those fun elements to these voting events so that people are more likely to take time out of their busy summer schedule and come learn about ranked-choice voting,” Kosednar said.
Kosednar said Young’s death sped up the timetable for educating voters. She said some people don’t realize elections are taking place or aren’t familiar with the new system. She said practicing helps.
“Once people practice it, they’re like, ‘Oh, this makes a lot of sense,'” he said.
Sarah Erkmann Ward, owner of a communications agency in Anchorage, has a contract with Alaskans for Better Elections and is doing outreach to help conservatives understand the system, she said. Alaskans for Better Elections supported the new election system and has been working with a variety of groups in an effort to help voters understand it.
Ward said he hasn’t seen any qualified voter skeptics leave their presentations as advocates.
“It’s more like realizing that, ‘Okay, this isn’t as hard as I thought, I’m not excited about it yet, but I know how to vote.’ And that’s really the goal here, just to make people comfortable with how they vote.”