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Politico's GOP pushes Murkowski to stay in line against Biden’s Covid bill includes the following:

Murkowski is unique, however, and so is her home of Alaska. The state is suffering economically, the pandemic has exacerbated the state’s woes, and she's complained repeatedly that Biden’s less fossil fuel-friendly energy policies are hurting Alaskans. Moreover, her state changed its primary system recently to dilute the possibility of a conservative or Trump-inspired challenger, giving her room to legislate from the middle.

Questions:

  1. How did Alaska "...chang(e) its primary system recently..."
  2. Was it really specifically to "...dilute the possibility of a conservative or Trump-inspired challenger..."? Was that the main reason that the change was made?
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Alaska Ballot Measure 2 made two big changes to elections, both of which are expected to reduce the power of the main parties:

  1. Party-run primary elections are replaced with non-partisan primary elections (sometimes called Jungle primaries). In a non-partisan primary, all candidates, regardless of party, run against each other in a primary election and the top vote-getters move on to the general election. Usually, in a non-partisan primary, the top-two candidates move on, but in Alaska's new system the top four move forward. This is because of the second change instituted by Ballot Measure 2:

  2. The normal first-past-the-post system has been replaced with ranked choice voting among the top-4 candidates from the primary. Instead of casting a single vote for a candidate, voters rank their candidates. If no one receives a majority of the votes, the last place candidate is removed and their voters are assigned to the other candidates based on their second choices. This continues until one candidate has a majority.


The main advantage for Senator Murkowski is the elimination of the closed party primary. Murkowski's image as a moderate has made here popular with the state at large, but earned her enemies among the core of the Republican party. In a closed primary, she would have to win a majority of votes from the most committed Republican party members, where her moderate record would be a detriment.

This isn't just theoretical: in 2010 she lost the Republican primary to a candidate backed by Sarah Palin, before running anyway and winning election as a write in candidate. A non-partisan primary would let her qualify for the general election by appealing to all Alaskans, not just Republicans.

Ranked choice voting is (at least in theory) helpful to moderates. Even if a right-wing Republican made it through the primary, Murkowski, as the lesser of two evils, is likely to be the second choice of most Democrats and so she'd likely benefit from redistributed votes in the second or third round of the election.

Both of these changes mean that Murkowski has less need to toe the party line and can challenge Republican orthodoxy without worrying about being eliminated in a closed primary.

UPDATE as of March 17th, 2021: Indeed, the Alaska Republican Party has recently censured Senator Murkowski for voting to convict Trump at his second impeachment trial and is seeking to block her from running as a Republican:

The Alaska Republican Party has censured U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski for voting to convict former President Donald Trump at his impeachment trial and now doesn’t want her to identify as a GOP candidate in next year’s election, a member of the party’s State Central Committee said Tuesday.

“But it also directed the party officials to recruit an opponent in the election and to the extent legally permissible, prevent Lisa Murkowski from running as a Republican in any election,” he said.

Thanks to Ballot Measure 2, however, they have much less power to do so. While they could encourage another Republican to run against her, and might (I'm unsure about this) be able to force her to run as an Independent, they can't simply block her from the ballot as they did in 2010:


As for your second question, I don't know of any evidence that it was deliberately designed to protect Murkowski from a primary challenger. The "Yes on 2 for Better Elections" campaign pushes the idea of "accountability" and makes a big deal about Alaska's independent streak:

“This is a victory for all Alaskans regardless of their political leaning,” Shea Siegert, manager of the Yes on 2 for Better Elections campaign, said in a statement Wednesday. “We now have an electoral system that lives up to Alaska’s independent streak by saying ‘to hell with politics let’s do what is right for Alaska.’”

So I'd guess their intention was to weaken the parties in general, rather than to protect Senator Murkowski specifically.

I think that sentence is mainly a strangely worded way of saying that this is the expected effect of the change, not that the change was made deliberately to have that effect.

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    Thanks for your thorough answer! It sounds like Alaska's system is now more like how Stack Exchange elects moderators? – uhoh Mar 5 at 2:46
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    @HagenvonEitzen I understand the system as: N candidates enter (parties cannot prevent anyone from running - they would just endorse few candidates), voters pick top 4, then voters (can) rank those top 4, with the last place being thrown out and his/her votes go towards voters' 2nd or 3rd choices until one candidate gets above 50% and wins. It seems a pretty good system to me - nobody would want to rank 10+ candidates. Yeah, in theory, 100 candidates of party B would end up with few votes each and fail to enter second round. But you know who the top candidates are, so it wouldn't happen. – Zizy Archer Mar 5 at 10:38
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    Ironically, "ranked choice voting" tends to perpetuate a two-party system, and is biased against "the middle". politics.stackexchange.com/a/14850/10373 – endolith Mar 6 at 2:45
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    @endolith that's pretty interesting! I wonder if it can be expanded into a supplementary answer here, or a "Why did Alaska... which perpetuates a two-party system?" question can be composed somehow? – uhoh Mar 6 at 2:58
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    @endolith Very interesting analysis. The main driver for moderation here, I think, is the nonpartisan primary. I also thought that the ranked choice voting would help too, but maybe not. The key factor from Murkowski’s perspective, though, is that the party can no longer block her candidacy – divibisan Mar 6 at 3:00

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