Lesson for political reformers: “Sometimes success can take a while”
Reflections on the eve of Alaska’s first use of ranked choice voting
Whoever said political reform is not adventurous? I remember when I ran the first campaign in Alaska for ranked choice voting (RCV). It was exactly twenty years ago in August 2002, and I and my FairVote colleagues had just passed RCV in San Francisco. We were heady with victory, and an opportunity had presented itself for placing RCV on the ballot for the entire state of Alaska. So I was dispatched there to run the campaign, taking our winning tactics and strategy to a new electoral landscape.
Probably there are not two places in the United States more different than Alaska and San Francisco. Not only is one considered very progressive and the other very conservative, but Alaska is enormous (665,000 square miles, 2.5 times larger than Texas), the very definition of that Gertrude Stein quote 'There is more space where nobody is than where anybody is.” San Francisco is tiny by comparison (47 square miles, less than one-tenth the size of Houston or LA), and dense with denizens who wouldn’t know a moose from a mouse.
What could possibly go wrong?
Quite a lot, it turns out. We lost that campaign by a wide margin, and twenty years later I’m thinking about lessons learned -- just as Alaska prepares to use ranked choice voting for the first time ever on August 16. Led by a new generation of reformers, they figured out how to crack the code of successful reform in a decidedly puzzling place. In two Tuesdays, Alaska will use RCV to fill a congressional vacancy. Then, in November, the state will use RCV again to select its governor, US Senator, state legislature, and then in 2024 its presidential choice. For the first time ever, RCV is being paired with a “top four” primary, which will be used on August 16 to narrow the field of candidates to four. The future of US politics is happening right now, in that out-of-the-way place, Alaska.
What is the difference between then and now? Why did we fail while they succeeded 20 years later?
II. Alaska reform: “It was 20 years ago today, Sgt Pepper taught the band to play…”
The first thing that must be said to those from the lower 48 who don’t already know: Alaska is a jaw-droppingly beautiful state. I can still remember when I flew in to Anchorage through a swirl of gigantic cumulus clouds that parted at one point to reveal the most stunning natural landscape. I had hiked in the Cascades near Seattle, the Sierra Nevadas in California and the Rockies in Colorado and Banff, and all are magnificent. But those areas seemed puny compared to the fresher orogeny of Alaska’s muscular, heaven-bound mountains, interspersed with glaciers, inlets and snaking “arms” (Alaska-speak for a fjord). This was “The Last Frontier,” as the locals fittingly call their home state, and in the summer they have 20 hours of daylight to revel in it.
Populating this geologic cauldron of wonder is bountiful wildlife – including right in the middle of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city of 270,000 people (at that time). I remember one afternoon, in the middle of our campaign, when one of my enthusiastic campaign workers burst in the door, wide-eyed and breathless. “You won’t believe what I saw!” he shouted, waving aloft the campaign door hangers which he was distributing door to door in various neighborhoods.
“A moose, right in the middle of the street! In the neighborhood!” Robert was part of a crew of volunteers we had flown to Alaska from California, Washington and New York to help replicate our San Francisco success. Naturally Robert had never seen a moose in his hometown San Francisco. Me, ever focused, hardly blinked: “Did you hang some door hangers on its antlers,” I asked, “slap it in the butt and send it running down the street to spread the word?” In Alaska, delivery by moose seemed to make a heck of a lot of sense (gotta watch this video).
With its unsurpassed rawness and beauty, Alaska’s frontier culture also is…unique, might be the best way to say it. For starters, it is one of the few American states where there are more men than women. While nationwide the US is majority (50.5%) women, less than 48% of Alaskans are female, joining other “frontiersy” kinds of states like Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Utah and both Dakotas with that kind of reversed demographic.
Perhaps all those men and testosterone is one explanation for another uniqueness about Alaska – it’s fondness for hunting and gun ownership rights, and weapons of all denominations.
I remember the first time, soon after my arrival in Anchorage, when I went to the law office of one of the sponsors of our Alaska initiative. He was a local attorney who handled the state legal matters for the Republican Party. Sitting in an adjoining space to his office, I suddenly was startled by the loud sound of a nearby gunshot. I sat frozen, listening. A few second later, “Bang!”, there it was again. When I heard it a third time, I had to investigate.
I crept down the short hallway, poked my head in his empty office. “Bang!”, again with the gun shot! I walked around the desk to his desktop computer, and there I saw the source of his piercing ordnance – the gunshot sound was his version of “You’ve got mail!” Every time an email arrived, the metallic explosion of Billy the Kid’s Colt double-action . 41 caliber blasted through his powerful speakers.
No, we were not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
Alaska is a state dominated by an ideology that prizes individual liberty above all else, and doesn’t much like “big government” or regulation. This was the charming backdrop to our electoral reform campaign. The reason why there was interest at that time among some Alaskan leaders in instant runoff/ranked choice voting was because Alaska had a very vibrant independent and minor party culture. While Republicans vastly outnumbered Democrats, the most distinctive thing about Alaskan politics was that fully half of its registered voters had chosen "Non-Partisan" or "Undeclared" as their affiliation. And most of those constituted an army of curmudgeonly conservatives who didn’t much care for political parties any more than they cared for big government.
Also there was a Libertarian Party, an Alaska Independence Party, a Green Party, and finally a splinter group from the heavily dominant Republican Party called the “Republican Moderate Party,” which formed due to perceptions that the core GOP had become dominated by the religious right. The latter party especially caused some GOP leaders to fear that the conservative vote would fracture and split among too many rightist candidates, allowing Democrats to win. So these GOP leaders started the campaign to place on the ballot a voter initiative for ranked choice voting, Measure 1, as a way of preventing spoiler candidates on the right.
I had about a dozen campaign volunteers, plus support from Rob Richie and the FairVote crew back in Washington DC, and we worked indefatigably to target our message, especially to those nonpartisan and undeclared voters. Precinct walking, phone banking, radio interviews – with a state as large as Alaska, radio was an indispensable medium for reaching small pockets of Alaska sapiens, some of whom lived in the bush far away from anything that might be called a “settlement.” We also gave brief presentations about Measure 1 to any organization that would invite us. Yes indeed, ANY organization.
One of these was to a private party at a country club-looking place, a beautiful ranch carved out of various marbled brown tones of timber and stone. Of course, lining the walls of the great hall were the obligatory mounted racks of various marvelous heads and horns of hunted prey. This was no ordinary party. It was a campaign event for one of the GOP candidates for governor – Wayne Anthony Ross. Better known by his initials, W.A.R., which he used on his campaign material, Mr WAR was a board member of the National Rifle Association and fairly notorious, even by Alaska standards. He would later be nominated as attorney general of the state by Governor Sarah Palin, only to have his appointment rejected by the Republican-dominated legislature because, among other things, he defended a statue of a KKK figure as an expression of free speech and compared his distaste for gays to his distaste for lima beans. That was the first time in Alaska history that a governor’s Cabinet nominee failed to win confirmation.
The keynote speaker at WAR’s campaign event was none other than Ted Nugent, famous rock ‘n roller (big hit: “Cat Scratch Fever,” which appears to be about getting a sexually transmitted disease) and also noted author of the Fox News bestselling cookbook, Kill It and Grill It. Nugent once called US Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was lead author of an assault weapons ban, a “worthless whore.” While heavily armed attendees eyed me and my campaign workers with cross-eyed suspicion – and we all eyed the quickest route to the nearest exit – author Nugent inveighed against all governments everywhere, ending with the inspiring mantra, “The United States sucks, Alaska sucks a little less, and W.A.R. doesn’t suck at all!” With that ringing endorsement, Mr. WAR got walloped by nearly 50 points in the GOP primary for governor (Sarah Palin, who I was introduced to at a major GOP get-out-the-vote event during a Sunday service at an evangelical church attended by thousands – no separation of church and state there -- was then mayor of the small town of Wasilla, population 5500. She finished a close second in the GOP primary for lieutenant governor, which launched her later gubernatorial and then national career).
We left the event soon thereafter, and met up for dinner with another one of my campaign workers who had the most plum assignment of all. In true “Go where the people are” spirit, we had been instructed by our Republican advisers that we should table at gun shows. Brent from Seattle was “volunteered” for this duty, armed with a large bright banner that read: “Vote for Measure 1: it will increase the Bang! of your vote!” Clearly a genius slogan that struck the proper balance between voter education and pandering. We could feel victory within our grasp.
But poor Brent. He returned from the gun show looking thoroughly traumatized. Gun shows are strange, but Alaskan gun shows? Another planet entirely. This one had been visited by thousands in a large gymnasium, where attendees in camos could purchase all manner of handguns, shotguns, semiautomatics, sniper rifles, Glocks, gnarly-looking “survival” knives, ammo, Confederate and "Don't Tread On Me” flags and more.
During the adventurous month that I and my campaign crew waged our righteous battle, I had an increasingly sinking feeling that we were in over our heads. An Alaskan campaign needed more of an Alaskan cultural touch. Certainly we had support from our Republican Party sponsors, but a split developed within the GOP, with some leaders wanting to pass RCV and others calculating how they could use their overwhelming Republican legislative majority to change the ballot access laws, and wipe from the ballot the Republican Moderate and other small parties threatening their dominance by splitting the conservative votes (this was not only a Republican thing – in New Mexico, around the same time, when the Green Party began spoiling Democratic candidates, the Democratic establishment split over the same strategy debate, i.e. whether to accommodate third parties using RCV, or pass a law that wiped them off the ballot).
III. Losing is a drag, but it teaches lessons.
For reformers, there are a few cautionary lessons here.
1) Helicoptering in to foreign lands may well provoke a backlash. Indeed, in Alaska we encountered significant pushback from certain Republican leaders who were furious over San Francisco liberals leading a campaign for reform, despite us having been invited there by other GOP leaders. Nevertheless, we were regarded as “outsiders” by many.
2) The importance of culture. In some places, cultural insights and deep knowledge can be as important to successful reform as political arguments or the “Problem plus Solution” formula that is also necessary to pass political reform.
We fell on the wrong side of that vote in August 2002, 36 to 64%. After the thrill of our San Francisco win six months before, we now had tasted the bitterness of defeat. We didn’t realize until too late that our local GOP sponsors had not been able to swing the party and its apparatus firmly on board the reform train. And without that imprimatur, the vast number of the all-important Undeclared and Nonpartisan-registered voters didn’t take too kindly to those strangers from the Lower 48 and their newfangled ideas.
3) Sometimes you have to lose before you win. We wish we would never lose and always win. Winning is a peak experience, especially at the conclusion of a mighty effort. But always winning is not real-world. In a campaign for political reform, there are so many factors that feed into success or failure. The important thing is to learn a lesson every time you lose.
Twenty years later, on November 3, 2020, a homegrown Alaskan effort tried again. The campaign this time was led by three solid Alaska co-chairs, Jason Grenn, a former independent state legislator and also Republican and Democratic co-chairs, a “three-pronged attack on making our elections better,” as Grenn called it. By the thinnest of margins, 50.55 to 49.45%, this time reform proponents prevailed.
As we like to say in the RCV movement: we didn’t really lose in August 2002…we just hadn’t won YET. That motto has prevailed in other places and times. We lost in San Francisco in 1996, but won in 2002. We passed RCV in Santa Fe in 2008 but it took 10 years to implement it. There are some places – Memphis, Sarasota – where RCV was passed 15 years ago and has not (yet) been implemented.
Sometimes success can take a little while. Patience is advised.
Steven Hill @StevenHill1776
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