October 2023

Alaska's Election Model: How the top-four nonpartisan primary system improves participation, competition, and representation

Alaska implemented a new election system in 2022 that was adopted by voters in 2020. The first-of-its-kind system combines top-four nonpartisan primaries with instant runoff general elections. Despite limited data and evidence from use in just one election cycle, the new election system already appears to be having a positive impact on Alaska’s politics.

Through an analysis of election outcomes, synthesis of new research from scholars and practitioners in the field, and the application of original research from the Unite America Institute, Rachel Leven and Tyler Fisher, find that the new election system increased “meaningful participation” and electoral competition, while also improving representation along both ideological and demographic lines.

In 2022:

  • Alaska voters had the strongest voice in the nation: Under the new system, voter participation mattered more than ever before. Alaska had the highest share of eligible voters (35%) who cast “meaningful votes” to elect its state house, nearly three times the national average. Meaningful votes are ballots cast in competitive elections that are not effectively pre-determined by party affiliation alone. For the first time since 2000, Alaska voters were also guaranteed the right to vote for any candidate in any election, regardless of their party affiliation.

  • Alaska’s elections were much more competitive: Just 12% of Alaska’s state legislative general elections were uncontested in 2022, half of the rate from 2020. Further, in these contested contests, candidates typically won by smaller margins, indicating greater competition. Also of note: the new election allowed for intraparty competition in general elections for the first time. Half of all contests featured more than one candidate from the same major party. When there is intraparty competition in a safe district, candidates are forced to appeal to a larger subset of voters, and all voters get a voice in the final outcome.

  • Winning candidates better reflected Alaska’s diversity: While we cannot prove causality between the new election system and these outcomes, following the 2022 election, fourteen people of color, representing 23% of the legislature, are currently serving after winning office in 2022. Women were also far more likely to seek office under the new system, as more women ran for statewide offices in 2022 than in the five previous election cycles combined. At the state legislative level, women won a majority of open seats, while independents now hold 10% of all seats.

With data from just one election cycle, there is still much more to be learned about Alaska’s new election system. However, the initial evidence is encouraging: In 2022, voters had more choice, elections were more competitive, and the ultimate outcomes were more representative. 


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