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Assembly Considers Ranked-Choice Voting for FNSB Elections

A lot of public comment has come to the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly this week about a measure to change the local voting system. It would put a proposal on the fall ballot to establish ranked-choice voting.  The Assembly will vote on it Thursday night.

Leah Berman-Williams has been working on a local ranked-choice voting ordinance since she was elected to the Assembly in 2018.

“We had an ordinance entirely drafted. And I decided to not take it to the assembly because I couldn’t get good numbers on how much it would cost. ”

But after the state purchased new voting machines in 2019, it was easier to try a new system. She was inspired to craft a change by the competitive municipal races in which candidates win a seat without the approval of a majority of voters. Since 2012, there have been 16 races for borough assembly, school board or Interior Gas Utility board where candidates won with less than 50 % of the vote.

Last year, Alaska voters passed Proposition 2, which limited dark money spending on campaigns and also established a ranked-choice voting system statewide.

Berman-Williams and Assembly member Matt Cooper are co-sponsoring Ordinance 2021-17 that establishes a local ranked-choice voting system.

“One of the advantages of this ordinance is that it would mean voting in our municipal elections is the same kind of voting as voting in our statewide elections.”

If the ordinance passes, it would only affect those races where more than two people run for a seat. Instead of voting for only one person, voters rank the candidates. If no one wins more than 50 percent, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes drops from the race. Voters who picked that candidate would have their second choice candidate counted. That’s why this system of voting is sometimes called “instant runoff.”

This process would repeat until one candidate has more than 50%. And it would happen transparently, as part of counting the votes.

Mayor Bryce Ward says since the ordinance was introduced, there has been a tremendous amount of public comment.

I’m just looking at what I have right now, it’s well over 300 emails that I have received, we’re probably pushing 400. I would say a majority of the comments I received have been negative.”

He has put forth a substitute ordinance to have borough voters decide at the October municipal election if they want this to be their voting system.

“Yeah, I definitely have concerns about implementing it without the partnership or conversation, if you will, with the cities. We do all of our municipal elections at the same time and they worried that having different ballads, if you will could be confusing between city races and Borough races.”

The sponsors, Matt Cooper and Leah Berman Williams, say the ImageCast Precinct ballot counters the state purchased in 2019 overcome any balloting problems.

Cooper - “That came up at the committee meeting and the clerk was very clear that this does not apply to the cities doesn’t apply to North Pole doesn’t apply to Fairbanks, and that it would be no problem with balloting, so yeah, there will be some differences in how the ballot looks but the clerk assured us that it would be no problem to create the ballots and they would be very similar to how they have looked.”

Berman-Williams - “Technologically there are no problems. The voting system that the state bought, which is what we use for our Municipal elections can handle a ballot that has a right choice voting section, and a first past The post voting section, which is what we do now and the top vote getters system that they used to elect the North Pole city Council. And it can handle that initiatives and it can do that all on the same ballot and can tally each race according to how that race is voted.”

Berman-Williams and Cooper have also put forth a substitute proposal for their own ordinance.

“I agreed with the mayor, the right choice is to send this to the voters.”

The two substitutes are similar, except the one from Cooper and Berman-Williams has a $75,000 allotment to be able to implement the system without taking another vote of the assembly.

If the ordinance passes, it will be put on the October 5 municipal ballot. If voters pass the measure then, Fairbanks North Star Borough would be the first municipality in Alaska to try the new system, along with statewide voters in 2022.