In Alaska, voters reject once-in-a-decade constitutional convention question

By: - November 9, 2022 2:10 am
Voters in Juneau come out of the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall voting location on Nov. 8. (Photo by Lisa Phu/Alaska Beacon)

Voters in Juneau come out of the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall voting location on Nov. 8. (Photo by Lisa Phu/Alaska Beacon)

Alaskans went to the polls Tuesday to answer a once-in-a-decade ballot measure question: Shall there be a constitutional convention? Their answer was a resounding “No.”

With 96% of precincts reporting, only 30.2% of Alaskans had voted yes, while 69.8% voted against the measure.

At a convention, the state constitution may be amended or revised, subject to approval by the voters.

Alaska hasn’t held a constitutional convention since the mid-1950s, when the state constitution was first written. The authors said they wanted to give Alaskans a chance to rewrite it in the future. Voters have consistently rejected the question ever since. But, in this election, groups on both sides of the question made the ballot measure a top concern.

Bruce Botelho, co-chair of the Defend Our Constitution group, was feeling good about the Ballot Measure question Tuesday morning.

“I’m feeling confident that a majority of Alaska voters will reject the idea of a convention in 2022,” he said on the phone.

Defend Our Constitution, whose executive committee is made up of Alaskans often on different sides of the aisle, garnered support from several large organizations around the state who oppose the convention and have encouraged their memberships to vote no. Close to four dozen are listed on the Defend Our Constitution website, including Alaska Municipal League, Doyon Limited and Alaska Public Employees Association/AFT.

Botelho said “people are justly proud of what they see as a state that values individual rights and that’s reflected in our first article of the constitution.”

He also said the amendment process – as opposed to holding a convention – is a good way to change the constitution, and that message has resonated with voters he said.

“We’ve had the legislature propose 40 changes since the constitution took effect in 1959. And of those, 28 have been approved by the voters. So there is a process; it’s a rigorous process, but one that I think has served us very well,” Botelho said.

He said the vote no campaign has included television and radio ads, social media, mailers, yard signs and fliers, op-eds in newspapers and online news sites, and several volunteers who’ve spoken to community groups and at debates for the past several months.

At the polls

Voter Jillian Buker didn’t see or hear any of that. She didn’t know the question would be on the ballot and said she voted no.

“I’m careful to say yes to things that I don’t know what they’re for or what they stand for, so I thought it was just easier to say no,” the 20-year-old Juneau resident said.

“I’ve seen the ads on Hulu about Lisa Murkowski and Bill Walker and Kelly Tshibaka,” but didn’t see anything on Ballot Measure 1, Buker said.

Stash Ginger, a painting contractor in the capital city, was in a similar boat. He also voted no on the constitutional convention question at the Shepherd of the Valley Church polling place in Juneau.

“No is the safest way I can go with, because I really don’t know anything about it,” he said.

The most he heard or saw about it was a few vote no yards signs.

“One or two here and there, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about it and I haven’t seen any commercials. But I’ve seen all the, you know, Murkowski doing her thing, Tshibaka doing her thing, Walker and all that stuff,” Ginger said.

Juneau voter Jay Feliciano said, “Politics is not really my thing so I don’t really pay attention to much of it.”

Still, the 29-year-old lifelong Alaskan saw enough campaign ads “pop up whenever I watched, like, YouTube and stuff like that,” and voted no. Feliciano said he doesn’t want to lose any rights.

Adam Underwood, voting in Lemon Creek in Juneau, was clear about wanting to “open that thing up.”

He voted yes on having a constitutional convention.

“If politicians don’t want to do it, I want to do it. That’s pretty much it,” Underwood said. “If politicians don’t like it, there’s a reason to open it up.”

When asked what issues he’d want to see addressed if a convention was held, Underwood said, “corruption. It’s all corrupt.”

For Anchorage resident Theresa Obermeyer, who voted yes on the ballot measure at Rogers Park Elementary, there are two specific issues she wants to see addressed during a constitutional convention. 

One is confirmation of the Alaska Permanent Fund Board by the Alaska Legislature; currently board members are appointed by the governor.  “I think a lot could go better if there were more checks and balances,” she said on the phone Tuesday.

Obermeyer also wants Alaska to have an elected official who’s required to be a member of the Alaska Bar Association. For example, she wants the attorney general position or an inspector general position, which Alaska doesn’t currently have, to be elected by voters. 

“If only that would be something that the constitutional convention would address and decide – whether it would be an inspector general or whether it would actually be an elected attorney general. It would be up to the delegates to put that on a list of issues that the voters would have to approve,” Obermeyer said.

Obermeyer put her name as a supporter of the constitutional convention on the Convention Yes website.

Craig Campbell, chair of the Convention Yes group, did not reply to requests for an interview. On its website, the group has named “the never ending theft of our permanent fund dividend” and “judicial overreach” as reasons to vote yes on the ballot measure.

Abortion rights 

Sommers Cole went with his family, including an 8-week-old and a 2-year-old, to vote at the Auke Bay Ferry Terminal polling place in Juneau on Nov. 8. (Photo by Lisa Phu/Alaska Beacon)
Sommers Cole went with his family, including an 8-week-old and a 2-year-old, to vote at the Auke Bay Ferry Terminal polling place in Juneau on Nov. 8. (Photo by Lisa Phu/Alaska Beacon)

Other voters on Election Day had abortion rights on their mind when voting against the constitutional convention. 

Sommers Cole – who had his family with him at the Auke Bay Ferry Terminal polling place, including an 8-week-old and a 2-year-old – said holding a convention would be too risky.

“The right to choose just got lost federally and so I think those folks who are interested in removing women’s right to choose are now going to focus on state-by-state tactics,” Cole said. “There will definitely be an ongoing effort to make that the case here.”

Tim Fullam, a 50-year Alaska resident, said he’s always opposed the constitutional convention when it’s been on the ballot in the past, and this time was no different.

“All the conservatives up north are going to want to put some sort of an abortion thing on there. There’s going to be messing around with voting rules. And so I just think, keep hands off. It’s a good constitution already. It’s been recognized as a classy constitution throughout the country, and I think it should be left alone,” he said.

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Lisa Phu
Lisa Phu

Lisa Phu covered justice, education, and culture for Alaska Beacon. Previously, she spent eight years as an award-winning journalist, reporting for the Juneau Empire, KTOO Public Media, KSTK, and Wrangell Sentinel. She's also been Public Information Officer for the City and Borough of Juneau, lead facilitator for StoryCorps Alaska based in Utqiagvik, and a teacher in Tanzania and Bhutan. Originally from New York, Lisa is a first generation Chinese American and a mom of two young daughters. She can be contacted at [email protected].