DG MARTIN COLUMN: Can North Carolina learn from Alaska?

Published 10:32 am Monday, September 12, 2022

Does Alaska have a political message for North Carolina?

Not a chance, you say. It’s too far away to have any connection to us.

But wait a minute. There are some connections.

D.G. Martin

Steve Cowper, who grew up in Kinston and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, served two terms in the Alaska House of Representatives and was governor from 1986 to 1990.

Then there is my connection to Mary Peltola, who was elected to the U.S. Congress last week beating former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

My connection to Representative-elect Peltola is remote but important to me. She lives in Bethel, in the far west of Alaska on the Kuskokwim River. It is where I spent the better part of a month on an Army mission to train soldiers in the Alaska National Guard. These troops were, like Peltola, native Alaskans.

Most of the troops had Russian names. I remember Sgt. Nicolai Nicolai even now, more than 50 years after I first knew him.

Russians were the original European colonists in Alaska. Although they withdrew after selling Alaska to the U.S. in 1867 for $7.2 million, there were still reminders in addition to the Russian names. When we arrived in early January, the celebration of the Russian Orthodox Christmas season was just ending.

North Carolina and the Bethel area of Alaska also share a connection to the Moravian church. I remember a cold dogsled ride from Bethel to the nearby Moravian mission, which was serving Alaskan natives, but where I felt very much at home.

Enough of your personal memories, you are thinking, what does all this have to do with Alaska’s message for today’s North Carolina?

The answer comes from understanding how Peltola, a Native Alaskan member of the Yup’ik group, and a Democrat, beat former Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin in the recent special congressional election.

It helps to understand Alaska’s new voting system, a form of what is called ranked-choice-voting.

Here is how it worked in Alaska.

First, in a nonpartisan primary, each voter picked one candidate from a list of everyone who had signed up to run. In the recent congressional election, 48 candidates ran in that first round primary.

The top four vote-getters in this primary were each given a spot on the ballot for the general election. The top four were Palin, Peltola, Nick Begich and another candidate who later dropped out.

Voters were able to rank up to three of the remaining candidates in order of preference: first, second and third.
Republicans Palin and Begich gathered a total of nearly 60 percent of first-place votes. Democrat Peltola got only about 40 percent of the first-place votes.

But because Begich came in third, he was eliminated, and his second-choice votes were reallocated. Most of his second-choice votes went not to fellow Republican Palin, but to Peltola, who thus got a majority and the victory.

Would this method of choosing office holders work in North Carolina?

On the positive side, it would eliminate candidates winning elections with as few as 30 percent of the vote.

It would open the door to worthy candidates who do not have connections to the major political parties or access to great wealth.

On the other hand, the complexity of the ranked-choice-voting could have citizens complaining that they prefer traditional voting systems that they can understand.

Democracy works best when citizens understand the system and have confidence in it.

I admire and respect Alaskans, especially the newly-elected Peltola, but for now I would like to keep our election system just like it is. As time passes though, we should, like the Alaskans, be open to adopting new election procedures that preserve and enhance our treasured democratic traditions.

CORRECTION: In a recent column about UNC System’s move to Raleigh, I wrote that the historic president’s home in Chapel Hill was no longer occupied by the president. The university’s office advised that President Peter Hans does indeed currently live there. I apologize for my error.

D.G. Martin, a lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”