Here’s a surprise: An Outside group claiming it wants better government, and aided by the usual liberal suspects in Alaska, is sinking thousands of dollars into a 25-page ballot initiative that would, if eventually approved by voters, make foundational changes to the state’s election machinery.
The “Alaska’s Better Elections Initiative” would do that without the first hint of legislative input. It is sponsored by former independent state Rep. Jason Grenn, Bonnie L. Jack, and former Gov. Tony Knowles’ attorney general, Bruce Botelho.
The puppeteer holding the strings is Represent.Us, a Massachusetts-based group funded largely by left-wing organizations and hell-bent on undoing the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision recognizing political donations as speech protected by the First Amendment. It says it wants to “fix our broken elections.”
It ponied up $10,000 in staff time during July for the effort. At last report, that was all but about $300 of the campaign’s reported income. Its treasurer is Paula R. DeLaiarro of Ship Creek Group, a political communications outfit. She also is treasurer for the Recall Dunleavy campaign. Former Gov. Bill Walker’s chief of staff, Scott Kendall, is an adviser for Better Elections and counsel for Recall Dunleavy.
Fortunately, Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer listened to Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, who said the initiative violated state law requiring it “be confined to one subject.” Meyer blocked signature-gathering to put the question on the 2020 ballot.
One subject? The initiative, a confusing conglomeration of legalese and gibberish, contains umpteen subjects and underscores what is wrong with trying to deal with complex public policy issues by initiative. Here is an example:
“An initiative: to prohibit the use of dark money by independent expenditure groups working to influence candidate elections in Alaska and require additional disclosures by these groups; establish a nonpartisan and open top four primary election system; change appointment procedures for certain elections boards and watchers and the Alaska Public Offices Commission; establish a ranked-choice general elections system; support an amendment to the United States Constitution to allow citizens to regulate money in elections; repeal special runoff elections; require certain notices in election pamphlets and polling places; and amend the definition of political party.”
And that is just the title. Then it gets down to 25 mind-numbing pages of excruciating detail. It is complicated and obscure. It, of course, is supposed to be. Voters, it is hoped, will have no idea what it is about except in the most general terms. Hey! Election reform? You bet.
The purpose of most initiatives is to get legislation on the books with the least effort and scrutiny. Instead of hashing out complex public issues in the Legislature, where they can be vetted, debated and amended, backers resort to an initiative, a special interest’s best friend. They tend to reduce questions about intricate policy questions to simple yes or no answers and do away with nuance, shading and compromise in determining complex public policy. Direct initiatives, darlings of populists and progressives, are an affront to good government, not its savior.
It is easy to see why they are popular in some circles. Getting this particular initiative’s proposed changes through the Legislature, for instance, might prove challenging. Republicans and Democrats alike might have problems with redefining political parties, or they may wonder what “certain notices” in election pamphlets might mean. State-mandated open primaries might also be vexing.
The late Washington Post columnist David Broder held a dim view of the initiative process. He pointed out in his “Democracy Derailed,” that initiatives have become the “favored tool of millionaires and interest groups,” to achieve policy aims without a messy legislative process. Initiatives, he wrote, are “alien to the spirit of the Constitution.
“It has given the United States something that seems unthinkable — not a government of laws, but laws without government.”
Unsurprisingly, this latest effort is not Grenn and Jack’s first rodeo. They joined Sitka Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins in “Alaskans for Integrity” to push an initiative purportedly aimed at curbing contacts with lobbyists, conflicts of interest and demanding lawmakers pass a state budget on time — a good one, a bad one, no matter — or give up their per diem allowance. Represent.Us was involved in that campaign, too. The initiative was a disaster, but stampeded lawmakers last year into passing their own version to keep it off the ballot.
Despite their allure in some circles, using initiatives for anything but answering short, simple yes or no questions stretches their utility. Using them for things such as fundamental change of the election system in Alaska begs credulity.
But “Alaskans for Better Elections” likely is not through. It can sue in an attempt to get signature-gathering underway, or it can rewrite the initiative and give it another shot.
But if it wins in the end, Alaska loses.