Murdoch-funded group gives major boost to initiative to overhaul Alaska’s elections

By November 13, 2019 November 14th, 2019 Politics, State Government

A voter leaves the booth as election workers at Northern Light United Church assist other voters during municipal elections on Oct. 1, 2019, in Juneau. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

An organization funded by media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s daughter-in-law has donated more than $500,000 to a campaign to overhaul Alaska’s elections and make it easier to elect independent candidates.

Unite America, a Colorado-based group that’s trying to reduce polarization and partisan gridlock, made a $500,000 contribution last week to Alaskans for Better Elections, which is trying to put its initiative on the ballot next year. A separate $100,000 contribution from Unite America came last month.

The Alaska initiative, its supporters say, is designed to make the state’s elections more fair, transparent and open. If approved, it would formally call for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to allow greater restrictions on campaign fundraising and spending, since some restrictions have been invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The initiative also contains three major policy changes in Alaska.

First, it would install a system of ranked choice voting, in which voters rank candidates in order of their preference. One of the system’s effects is giving voters more freedom to support independent and third-party candidates, since a vote for those candidates becomes less likely to spoil the chances of the Democrat or Republican that might be that voter’s second choice.

A second piece of the initiative would block Alaska’s political parties from limiting participation in their primary elections. Currently, the Alaska Republican Party’s primary allows only GOP members, nonpartisans and unaffiliated voters to participate, which favors more conservative candidates since registered Democrats can’t vote. Supporters of the initiative say that the primary should be open because it’s publicly funded, and doing so would increase voter turnout.

The initiative’s third major piece would strengthen the state’s financial disclosure laws for elections, barring groups from making campaign contributions larger than $2,000 without identifying the “true sources” of the groups’ money.

The campaign is one of several being supported by Unite America, which is also backing an anti-gerrymandering effort in Pennsylvania and a ranked choice voting initiative in Massachusetts. Another ranked choice voting campaign backed by Unite America, in New York City, was approved by voters earlier this month.

Of the $2.5 million that Unite America raised in the first six months of the year, according to federal financial disclosures, $1.65 million came from Kathryn Murdoch, who’s known as one of her family’s most liberal members.

Rupert Murdoch accepts the Hudson Institute’s 2015 Global Leadership Award in November 2015. (Creative Commons photo by Hudson Institute)

She’s the wife of James Murdoch — the younger son of Rupert Murdoch, the Fox News co-founder — and has stepped up her public presence and activism this year, saying that climate change demands a more urgent response and that such solutions require a fix to partisan gridlock.

“We must take urgent action to address our increasingly polarized and gridlocked system that is at present incapable of putting the needs and aspirations of citizens and their communities first,” she said in a March statement announcing the donation to Unite America.

Unite America’s contribution to Alaskans for Better Elections represents a major boost for the campaign. By comparison, the “Yes for Salmon” campaign to pass a fish habitat protection initiative in last year’s election spent less than $2 million overall. Alaska does not place limits on the size of contributions that groups supporting or opposing initiatives can accept.

Critics of the elections initiative have pointed to the fact that nearly all of its funding has come from Outside groups. Republican political blogger Suzanne Downing earlier this year described Alaskans for Better Elections as an “astroturf,” “fake grassroots” campaign.

The campaign’s application was initially rejected by state elections officials based on a recommendation by Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, who said the initiative was too broad to comply with a state law requiring that initiatives address a single subject.

That ruling was overturned last month by an Anchorage judge, in a decision that elections officials appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Judge approves signature gathering for initiative that would change state elections

While the case is pending, the initiative sponsors can begin collecting the 28,000 signatures they need to place their question on the ballot next year. The campaign reported a $315,000 debt to a Texas-based signature gathering company, Advanced Micro Targeting, in a financial disclosure earlier this month.

The campaign has also reported a $25,000 debt for legal fees, and $6,000 in debts to former Anchorage state Rep. Jason Grenn for three months of “communications, social media and marketing strategy.”

Jason Grenn testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 27, 2017. Grenn was an Alaska state representative at the time. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Unite America supported several independents in Alaska in 2018’s election cycle — former Gov. Bill Walker, along with four state legislative candidates: Grenn, Paul Seaton of Homer, Chris Dimond of Juneau and Dan Ortiz of Ketchikan. All of them lost, except Ortiz; Grenn is now chairing the Alaskans for Better Elections campaign.

Since then, said Unite America Executive Director Nick Troiano, the group has shifted its approach to supporting broader changes to the election system instead of focusing on individual candidates.

“We thought the way to get there was supporting independent candidates,” Troiano said in a phone interview Monday. “And we realized there need to be fundamental changes to the system to allow new competition.”

The Murdochs’ donations to groups like Unite America have been criticized as an effort to distance themselves from the “taint” of the polarization driven by Fox News. But Kathryn Murdoch, in interviews with The New York Times earlier this year, said her philanthropy was driven largely by the urgency of the problems created by climate change.

“I’m not saying I have all the answers — I don’t,” she said, “But what I know and what I feel very strongly is that sitting around not doing anything is the wrong answer.”

Troiano described Murdoch as “an independent-minded woman stepping up to fill a void.” She and his group’s other major donors, he added, “are choosing to stick their necks out in a hostile political environment to do what they think is right for the country, and not for their own purposes.

“It’s much easier to go into philanthropy to put your name on a college dorm or build the next wing of the hospital than it is to get involved in politics,” he said.

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