Alaska's Independent Majority and the Case Against Closed Primaries

Early reports out of Alaska indicate that Lisa Murkowski has a very good chance of winning the state's US Senate election as a write-in candidate.  Via Memeorandum, the Anchorage Daily News reports:
Almost 98 percent of write-in ballots opened Wednesday went to Lisa Murkowski on the first day of a count meant to decide Alaska's U.S. Senate race. . . . Elections workers opened the write-in ballots for almost 20 percent of the precincts in Alaska on Wednesday. The count of more than 90,000 write-ins will continue today and is expected to last five days.
The New York Times reports that 231,756 votes were cast in the race:  40.1% were for a write-in candidate, 35.5% went to Republican Joe Miller, 23.4% supported Democrat Scott McAdams, and .5% were cast for Libertarian David Haase.  If Murkowski's write-in campaign proves victorious, she may well end up becoming the third Independent in the US Senate.  Why would she continue to affiliate herself with a party from which she was effectively ousted after Republican voters rejected her in the primary?

Furthermore, if she were to declare her political independence, Murkowski would not be an eccentric or an outlier.  Indeed, her affiliation or lack thereof would be a more precise reflection of Alaska's electorate, as the majority of registered voters in Alaska are themselves Independents.  This latter fact is something the ideologues in the Republican and Democratic parties would rather we all ignore. 

Democrats and Republicans together only account for 41.5% of Alaska's voters, 52% of whom are not affiliated with any party, according to a registration table at  This simple fact has far-reaching political consequences.  Because Alaska has closed primaries, i.e. only party members can cast ballots in primary elections, the majority of voters are disenfranchised from the process by which candidates for public office are selected to appear on the general election ballot.  Joe Miller won the GOP primary against Murkowski with just under 50,000 votes, which comes to to roughly 37.7% of registered Republicans, and only 9.7% of registered voters!  See this post on turnout in the Alaska GOP primary.  Even the New York Times has begun to question the wisdom of maintaining the current primary system in the face of an Independent majority.  Today Matt Bai writes that "Alaska may offer a view of future elections":
Something like 230,000 Alaskans appear to have cast ballots in this month’s midterm election, compared with fewer than 146,000 who voted in the Republican and Democratic primaries combined . . . What all of this probably means is that some critical number of independent voters decided they didn’t like the options the two parties had given them, and they were willing to go to the trouble of writing in a candidate who seemed to have a real chance of winning rather than pull levers A or B. 
This was bound to happen somewhere. There was a time in America when our primary process made perfect sense, because most voters identified closely with one party or the other, and it was safe to assume that someone who wanted to participate would choose a team. In the 1950s, independents lagged behind both parties, making up less than a quarter of the electorate.
That number has risen steadily, however, especially among younger voters, to the point where independents have recently overtaken both parties, hovering around 40 percent. A recent Pew Center poll found that the number of voters who identified themselves as independents had risen five percentage points since 2002.
You have to wonder, given this trend, whether the primary process as we’ve known it can remain tenable. With each passing year, it seems, an ever smaller group of voters in either party — rallying, in a year like this one, around ever more extreme points of view — get to effectively determine the options for the rest of the electorate.
Bai concludes by wondering whether we will see more states move toward an open primary system, like that which is soon to be implemented in California.  With the rising number of Independents in the country, it will become ever more difficult to justify the continued existence of closed primary elections.  Why should taxpayers have to foot the bill for the primary elections of minority and fringe parties like the Republicans and Democrats, when the majority of taxpayers are prohibited from voting in those elections and effectively disenfranchised from the political process?

Update and Correction: In the comments, Dale corrects an error in the above regarding Alaska's primaries.  He writes:  "Primaries in Alaska are only partially closed. Parties have the option to limit who can vote in their primaries. Only the Republican party does so, and they choose only to exclude registered members of other parties; non-partisan and undeclared voters are welcome though."  It turns out I mistakenly referenced an outdated listing of states with open vs. closed primaries at Fair Vote rather than their current one, which appears correct.  Thanks Dale!

Even despite the fact that Alaska's primaries are only partially closed, there is still significant support for fully open primaries in the state.  For instance, see this article at the Juneau Empire, in which the author speculates that turnout in the state's semi-closed primaries is so low because Independents likely favor candidates from more than one party and thus "their preferred candidates in all the races were split up on the two ballots."  He argues that, "A completely open primary in a state dominated by independent voters would serve the people better" than the existing semi-closed system.

For more information about factual errors on the internet, see this article from The Onion.


Dale Sheldon-Hess said...

Firstly, Murkowski has, repeatedly and definitively, stated that she is still a member of the Republican party and will continue to caucus with the Republicans. I think I can pull up a tweet from her official account to verify that.

Secondly, there's a major error in your analysis. Primaries in Alaska are only partially closed. Parties have the option to limit who can vote in their primaries. Only the Republican party does so, and they choose only to exclude registered members of other parties; non-partisan and undeclared voters are welcome though. (And yes, I'm sure. I am an undeclared Alaskan voter, I voted in the primary, and the Republican ballot was offered to me. (But I chose to take the Democratic/Libertarian/Alaska Independence/independent ballot instead.))

Miller won the primary for two reasons. One, he went all-in for the somewhat-contentious ballot measure Proposition 2, and his people really turned out to support it, while Murkowski gave it only half-hearted support. Two, he spent a ton of money on advertising in the primary campaign, while Murkowski figured she was a shoe-in and would be best served to save it for the general. Combined with a surprising and unexplained low overall turnout, Miller's people had free reign.

Totally with you that parties aught to pay for their own primaries though. But hoping that California's system doesn't spread; it's not an open primary (even though it's stolen that name for itself), it's a jungle primary, which is a very different beast.

d.eris said...

Thanks for the correction and clarification Dale. It would really be a shame if Murkowski doesn't have the courage to declare her political independence even after getting so much support from independent voters.

DLW said...

CA's primary would work better if they used approval voting in it, though...