Bill to change governor elections surfaces late in session

Posted: Tuesday, May 02, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- Another attempt to change the way Alaska elects its governors has surfaced in the final days of the Legislature's session.

Senate Bill 314, introduced late Monday, would limit the ballot in general elections for governor to the top two finishers in the primary, regardless of party. Each candidate would be matched with the candidate for lieutenant governor from their own party who received the largest number of votes in the primary.

The bill is the third proposal offered by the current Legislature's Republican majority aimed at eliminating the multi-party races that have helped keep the GOP out of the governor's office since 1982. It is similar to the system used in Louisiana.

A bill authorizing a complex instant runoff system is stalled in a House committee, while a constitutional amendment passed by the Senate to require a majority vote for governor apparently does not have the votes to pass the House.

The Republican Party of Alaska contends the growth of small parties in Alaska raises the prospect of a governor who represents only a small slice of the electorate.

''For the governor to be elected with 25 percent of the vote is just wrong and it's possible under our current archaic plurality system,'' said Chip Wagoner, chairman of the party's legislative committee and a national Republican committeeman for Alaska.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell, said SB 314 was introduced as an alternative to the other two measures. The committee heard the bill Tuesday but did not act on it because of several concerns raised by witnesses.

''If this bill passes you're going to effectively eliminate everything but the Republican and Democratic parties,'' said Mark Chryson, chairman of the Alaskan Independence Party.

Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, a Democrat who oversees the state's elections, denounced the committee for dealing with a bill on only a day's notice.

''This deprives the public of any realistic opportunity to influence the debate and the result,'' Ulmer said. ''In a state where there are many voters who are registered as either nonpartisan or in a minority party, it doesn't seem consistent with giving voters a choice.''

Under the current system, the candidate with the most votes in the general election wins, even if that total is less than 50 percent.

Only two governors -- Bill Egan and current Gov. Tony Knowles -- got more than half the vote.

However, Knowles, a Democrat, won his first term in 1990 with only 42 percent of the vote after AIP candidate Jack Coghill siphoned off nearly 28,000 mostly conservative votes. And in 1990, former GOP Gov. Walter Hickel won on the AIP ticket with just 39 percent of the vote, beating Knowles and a moderate Republican.

If SB 314 became law, it would also eliminate write-in candidates for governor or lieutenant governor in the general election. Ulmer said she found that ironic because Taylor finished second to Knowles two years ago as a write-in.

Taylor said he did not know whether the bill would advance any further.

''I think there are many aspects of this that require further reflection,'' Taylor said.

Because SB 314 would change law instead of amending the constitution, it would need only simple majorities in the House and Senate to pass. Constitutional amendments must be approved by two-thirds majorities.

However, Knowles could veto the bill, an option that isn't available on proposed constitutional amendments, which must be approved by voters.

''That's veto bait if I ever saw it,'' Taylor said.

Overriding the veto could be easier than passing a constitutional amendment. The House has only 26 Republican members, not enough to pass an amendment on a straight party-line vote. However, the 15 Republicans in the Senate give the GOP more than the 40 votes required for an override in joint session.

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