Alaska Rep. Young’s Passing Yields Chaotic Special Election Process

By Jim Ellis

Alaska’s At-Large Congressman, the late Don Young (R-Ft. Yukon)

March 22, 2022 — On Friday, the Dean of the House of Representatives, Alaska’s At-Large Congressman Don Young (R-Ft. Yukon), passed away in an airplane flying back to his home state. The congressman, who was first elected in a 1973 special election, served in the House for 49 consecutive years, or just 14 years less than the time Alaska has been a state.

The congressman’s full and colorful national political career even began in an unusual way. As a sitting state legislator, he ran for Congress in 1972, opposite at-large Rep. Nick Begich (D). Less than a month before the election, however, Rep. Begich and then House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (D-LA) went down in a plane crash on a tour through the Last Frontier. With Boggs legally declared as missing, though it was imminently clear that all perished in the crash, he still defeated Young in the 1972 regular election.

Upon certification of Rep. Begich’s death, Don Young then won the succeeding special election in early 1973. He would never lose again. Coming full circle, Rep. Young’s 2022 opponent would likely have been Nick Begich III (D), the late congressman’s grandson.

While best wishes and remembrances for and about the congressional icon are coming from throughout the country, a potentially chaotic replacement process lies before the state’s governor to direct, and then for those who choose to become candidates.

Under Alaska law, a special election must be conducted to fill an electoral vacancy no less than 60 and no more than 90 days after the position is officially vacated. In this case, Young passed away on March 18. Therefore, at least the initial election must occur during the period between May 17 and June 16.

Because the state is changing its election procedure, much is unclear. An Alaska Department of Law spokesperson stated in an interview with the Anchorage Daily News that the agency personnel will review the applying statutes and prepare an advisory report for Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R).

In 2020, Alaska voters passed an initiative to change the state’s primary system. Thus, the state will now use a jungle primary format. Three other states, California, Louisiana, and Washington have jungle primaries, but in all of those places the top two finishers advance into the general election or post-election runoff. Louisiana holds its jungle primary concurrently with the regular general election so that a leading candidate with a percentage greater than 50 is elected outright.

The new Alaska system is different, however. Under their new untried procedure, the top four qualifying election participants advance into the general election irrespective of political party affiliation or vote percentage attained. It’s unclear, however, if the new system is to be utilized for this new congressional special election, or if filling the vacancy will be conducted under the previous and more traditional voting procedure.

There is also a question as to whether Gov. Dunleavy can schedule the special general election concurrently with the state’s Aug. 16 regular primary election, or if that is action he would even want to take.

It would clearly be most cost effective for the state to hold the special general on the same day as the regular primary, but if two separate voting systems are used, confusion would rein and the two finalists would have to campaign for the special general and the regular primary under two systems with likely different opponents. While running a special general concurrently with a regular primary is not unusual, using two different electoral systems, which could be the eventual ruling, would be unique to say the least.

The other option would be to hold the special general in a separate vote before the regular primary. This would be much more expensive and force voters to cast multiple ballots, but would likely make the replacement process and regular election easier to understand for voters and allow the candidates to better hone their campaign messages.

Since the at-large House seat has not been open in five decades, we can expect a large candidate field competing in the special election. If the top-four system is used for the special, then the Ranked Choice Voting system would also be used to determine an eventual winner in the special general if none of the four reach the 50 percent plateau.

If concurrent with the regular primary, it is likely that the special election’s top four, as determined in the special primary, would then be on a regular primary qualifying ballot with many more candidates, which could reasonably lead to a somewhat different quartet advancing into the regular general.

In what was expected to be another typical congressional election cycle that would have likely re-elected Young, the new Alaska at-large open seat will now draw national attention and could be a pivotal contest in determining the next House majority.

Since, the 2020 election, five House members have passed away, an unusually high number. The others, in order of passing, are: Rep-Elect Luke Letlow (R-LA), and Reps. Ron Wright (R-TX), Alcee Hastings (D-FL), Jim Hagedorn (R-MN), and Young.

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