They did it. Alaska’s budget, which passed the Legislature last week, was a classic political compromise, with a smaller split check than many would have liked, but more spending on education and other public goods than the state clearly needs.
No one got everything they wanted, but half a loaf is better than nothing. While normal politics is usually nothing to celebrate, it seems like a step forward after the past few years.
The return to normalcy was premised on the revival of cross-party coalitions both in the Senate, the key engine in the budget negotiations, and in the House. Commitment came before loyalty to the party. In the Senate, Republicans joined Democrats to form a strong supermajority caucus. In the House, 19 Republicans formed a coalition with two independents and two Democrats, sidelining some of the more extreme voices in the chamber.
Such “cross-party” majorities are rare in American politics, but historically not all that unusual in Alaska, where one or both houses of the state Legislature have often been controlled by cross-party majorities, including Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.
Alaska, however, has not been immune to the partisan polarization that now characterizes the US Congress and so many state legislatures, with both conservative and liberal politicians taking extreme positions on culture war issues like trans rights, racial politics, , climate change. , and some of Alaska’s idiosyncratic problems, such as “federal government overreach” and state budget politics and Permanent Fund dividends.
Party primaries in the past decade have increasingly seen the most extreme candidates defeat mainstream candidates. Roger Holland’s defeat of Senate President Cathy Giessel in 2020 typified this trend.
These ‘closed’ primaries, which remain the norm in most of the country, have narrower constituencies and often exclude independent voters who do not identify with any party. However, they essentially picked the winner in districts that are safe for that party. Thus, politicians have strong incentives to stick with the preferences of the primary electorate rather than all voters.
By encouraging politicians to take more extreme views, these primaries also make our legislatures increasingly dysfunctional. Instead of meeting in the middle to find solutions both sides can live with, they further separate lawmakers and make agreement more difficult.
Equally important is the impact on legislative style. Regardless of how conservative or liberal your views are, primaries encourage intransigence about compromise to please party members. This is a recipe for gridlock on full display right now in the debt ceiling crisis in Washington, DC
Our research suggests that Alaska’s new final four electoral system (a one-vote primary for all voters to select up to four candidates, followed by a ranked-choice voting general election) has helped halt these trends in Juneau and perhaps even reverse them.
With up to four candidates running in the general election, voters have a greater variety of ideological options than under the old system, including candidates who are slightly more moderate or centrist. The ranked-choice general election allows voters to express the strength of their feelings among candidates, who are encouraged to reach beyond their base.
The new system does not prevent very strong Conservatives or Liberals from winning, if they represent the majority of their district. After all, conservative Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy easily won re-election under the system. So did Rep. David Eastman.
But it has freed lawmakers from being held hostage to party primaries while allowing more voters to influence election outcomes and giving them a greater choice.
In 2022, the new system encouraged Cathy Giessel to return. Under the new ‘tundra’ primary, she was able to advance to a general election, where the electorate preferred her relatively moderate Republicanism to her more conservative incumbent opponent.
Of course, none of this means that the governor and the two houses of the Legislature will come together and sing ‘kumbaya’ over divisive issues, like the size of the Permanent Fund dividend. The two coalitions in the Legislature differ greatly, and Governor Dunleavy has his own views. The US separation of powers is designed to create precisely this kind of conflict between the branches and for one to control the other.
But ultimately, after all the jockeying, arguing, and bickering, the competing branches must compromise for the government to work. The results may not always be pretty, and watching the process, often compared to making sausage, certainly isn’t. But it is vital for the American system to work.
Voting on the final four jumpstarts this process and helps ensure that Alaska will maintain its traditional, independent, and very American style of government.
Glenn Wright David Lublin and Benjamin Reilly are political scientists from the University of Alaska Southeast, American University, and the East-West Center, respectively.
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