Inside the novel voting system that could sink Palin’s comeback bid

And an expensive campaign is underway to bring the system to Nevada, the perennial battleground state. It’s the latest step in a growing push around the country to implement ranked choice voting in cities and states — a change that could have a profound impact on the type of candidates voters send to city halls, state governments and Washington, DC

A ballot measure going before Nevada voters this fall would impose a similar system to Alaska’s. All candidates would run in one open primary under the proposal, with the top five contenders regardless of party advancing to a ranked choice general election.

The ballot measure campaign has become a battle between powerful state and national interests, with a major investment from former food manufacturing CEO Katherine Gehl helping power the “yes” campaign and Nevada’s top elected Democrats — as well as a major national Democratic Senate group — among those funding the “no” bond.

Opposition from powerful party interests happened in Alaska, too. Advocates say that that’s because the combination of open primaries and ranked choice voting threatens the parties by incentivizing candidates to represent a broader base of voters, not just those in their party.

“We believe it’s that combination that’s the most powerful, viable electoral reform in the country right now,” said Nick Troiano, executive director of electoral reform group Unite America.

Currently, voters need to be affiliated with a party to participate in a primary in Nevada, and around one-third of active voters in the state are registered as nonpartisan. The initiative needs to pass in both 2022 and 2024, after which it would go into place for the 2026 elections.

A recent poll from The Nevada Independent and OH Predictive Insights showed 42 percent of registered voters supporting the initiative, compared to 27 percent opposing and another third undecided.

“People aren’t aiming for their corner of the electorate anymore,” said Joe Brezny, campaign manager for Nevada Voters First, the group backing the initiative. “People are aiming for the electorate, and that’s what’s going to make us all better.”

But the push has powerful critics. Protect Your Vote Nevada, the group opposing the measure, claims it will lead to invalidated ballots and argues that it undermines the concept of “one person, one vote.”

Democratic Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak and Sen. Catherine Cortez Mastoboth of whom are up for reelection in November, oppose the initiative, and the Democratic state Assembly and state Senate caucuses have donated against the initiative. So has Majority Forward, the political nonprofit aligned with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

“We should be finding ways to continue our progress, not pushing a rushed constitutional change that would make our system more confusing, error-prone and exclusionary,” Sisolak said in a statement. Sen. Jacky Rosen also opposes the “risky and experimental” proposal.

Alaska’s measure faced similar criticisms before it was passed in 2020.

The Nevada initiative has raked in over $2.4 million, according to its most recent filing from July. A chunk of that — $1 million — came from Gehl, founder of the nonprofit Institute for Political Innovation and former president and CEO of Wisconsin-based Gehl Foods manufacturing company.

A half million-dollar contribution also came from the Chicago-based Final Five Fund Inc., which is headed by Gehl. Gehl said that she can’t be the leader of the initiative because she doesn’t live in Nevada — and emphasized the importance of those living there leading the charge — but her initial investment provided the foundation for local organizers to move forward.

“I don’t want to do small things,” Gehl said. “I want to do things that, if they were successful, would not just count as a win, that actual people in their real lives would see and feel the difference in action from their leaders in Congress and in the states.”

The Institute for Political Innovation supports initiatives to implement “final-five voting” — the combination of top-five primaries and instant runoff general-election voting — for elections for Congress and state legislatures. Gehl said that the institute will support the Nevada initiative as much as it can, depending on its needs moving forward.

Unite America, Troiano’s organization, donated $100,000 in March and another $100,000 in June. (Gehl was previously a board member of the group.) Reid Hoffman, the Democratic megadonor and a co-chair of the Institute for Political Innovation, also donated $100,000. Dan Tierney, founder of Wicklow Capital investment firm in Illinois, also donated $50,000 in April.

Out-of-state contributions have long been a driving force behind initiatives like these. Unite America contributed over $500,000 to Alaska’s initiative, and a bulk of other donations came from organizations outside of Alaska. And Unite America co-chair Kathryn Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s daughter-in-law, gave over $2 million to a Massachusetts ranked-choice initiative that eventually failed. But the source of the money has led to claims from opponents that the initiative is being driven by outside interests rather than a grassroots movement.

Other groups supporting the initiative include the Nevada Association of Realtors and the Clark County Education Association with $250,000 each; Laborers Union Local 872 donating $25,000; and the Nevada Franchised Auto Dealers Election Action Committee donating $5,000.

Representatives from the Nevada Association of Realtors and Nevada Franchised Auto Dealers Association pointed primarily to the large number of voters who are currently unable to take part in primaries as their reason for supporting the initiative.

“While it’s not a cure-all for political polarization, we believe this initiative can give more of a voice to the nearly 40 percent of Nevada voters who are not members of the two largest political parties and who are currently disenfranchised during the primary process, ” a spokesperson from Nevada Realtors said in a statement.

Other contributors include Wynn Resorts, which donated $20,000 in June. Former Wynn Resorts CEO Matt Maddox and his wife Katherine Maddox, as well as board member Phil Satre and his wife Jennifer Satre, donated $5,000 each. Station Casinos also contributed $25,000.

A similar effort in Missouri filed to get enough signatures to make the November ballot. But ranked choice voting has gained more traction at the local level. Cities like New York and San Francisco use the system, and it is on the November ballot in Portland, Ore., and Seattle, among other cities and counties.

Deb Otis, director of research at FairVote, a pro-ranked choice voting group, said the growth of the system on a local level helps build momentum for it.

Gehl said that she thinks it’s beneficial that these initiatives are adopted at the local level rather than through a national campaign. “Each state has a different dynamic,” she said. “There are some states that I wouldn’t think this is what they want to do. The cool thing about final-five voting is you don’t have to make the changes in 50 states for it to make a difference.”

“You’ll see a difference in the agency and freedom in leadership that their representatives in Congress have,” Gehl predicted, “regardless of what other states around them do.”

Already, the Alaska system may be insulating GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski from partisan blowback over her vote to convict Donald Trump on impeachment charges last year. Three House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump went on to run in partisan primaries in 2022; all of them lost.

But Murkowski didn’t have to face GOP voters in a closed contest because of the new voting system instituted in her state, and she’s favored to defeat a field including a Trump-backed challenger in the November ranked choice vote.

In Nevada, advocates have pushed back against the concept that the voting system is too complicated and have been working on educating voters about how it works. Brezny said that he’s confident the initiative is gaining steam — and he hopes the Alaska election will only help.

“Our enemy isn’t opposition,” he said. “Our enemy is a lack of education about the subject.”

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