So far in 2021, there have been two new state supreme court vacancies in two of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. The vacancies have both been caused by retirements.
In Colorado, Chief Justice Nathan Coats retired on January 1, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 72. Colorado Governor Jared Polis (D) appointed Maria Berkenkotter to the Colorado Supreme Court on November 20, 2020. Berkenkotter is Polis’ first nominee to the seven-member supreme court. In South Dakota, Chief Justice David Gilbertson retired in early January, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 years old. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) appointed Scott P. Myren to the South Dakota Supreme Court on October 28, 2020.
Currently, Maine is the only appointment state which had a vacancy in 2020 which has yet to be filled.
Three more states will see vacancies from retirement on their state supreme courts in 2021:
• Joel Bolger, June 30, 2021, Alaska
• Leslie Stein, June 4, 2021, New York
• Eugene Fahey, December 31, 2021, New York
In Alaska, the vacancy will be filled by Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy. Both of the vacancies on the New York Supreme Court will be filled by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The Alaska Supreme Court confirmed Alaska Representative Lance Pruitt’s (R) 11-vote loss to Democratic challenger Liz Snyder on Friday, January 8. The court ruled that Pruitt did not provide sufficient evidence to sustain his challenge of the election results.
Pruitt’s loss means that control of the chamber will likely remain uncertain until at least January 19, when lawmakers will convene in Juneau for the start of the legislative session. As a result of this decision, the Alaska House of Representatives is currently split between a 20-member Republican faction and a multi-partisan coalition of 16 Democrats (including Snyder), three independents, and Republican Louise Stutes. Had Pruitt won, it could have given the Republican wing of the House the 21 votes needed to control the chamber.
Pruitt’s lawsuit centered on the argument that the state did not adequately notify the public when the Alaska Division of Elections moved a polling location and that the Division of Elections did not provide suitable election security in regard to absentee ballots. Pruitt’s attorney in the case, Stacey Stone, said that Pruitt will not pursue any further action to contest the results of the election. “The integrity of our election system serves as the foundation of our government. We respect the decision of the court today, but we hope the Division (of Elections) addresses the issues that occurred in Precinct 915 so that these type of events do not occur in the future, and that all voters constitutional rights are guaranteed. We await the supreme court’s full opinion as to how they addressed the multiple points on appeal,” Stone said. After the verdict was announced, Snyder said, “It was great to see that come out the way we anticipated it.”
Although Republicans won a 23-16 majority with one independent in the 2018 elections, a coalition of 15 Democrats, four Republicans, and two independents elected Bryce Edgmon (I) as House speaker on February 14, 2019. The parties split control of key leadership positions and committees and Edgmon was elected speaker after leaving the Democratic Party. The House majority consisted of 15 Democrats, eight Republicans, and two members unaffiliated with either party. Of the eight Republicans who joined the majority coalition in 2018, only Steve M. Thompson and Louise Stutes were re-elected in 2020.
Eighty-six of 99 state legislative chambers across 44 states held general elections on November 3, 2020. Heading into the 2020 elections, Republicans had majorities in 59 chambers and Democrats had majorities in 39 chambers. Partisan control flipped in two chambers—Republicans gained majorities in the New Hampshire House of Representatives and the New Hampshire State Senate.
Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger is retiring on June 30, 2021. Bolger’s replacement will be Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s (R) second nominee to the five-member supreme court.
Bolger joined the Alaska Supreme Court in 2013. He was appointed by Gov. Sean Parnell (R) to succeed Justice Walter Carpeneti. He became chief justice of the court in July 2018. Bolger is the only justice to have served on every level in the Alaska state court system. Before joining the Alaska Supreme Court, Bolger was a judge on the Alaska Court of Appeals from 2008 to 2013, the Kodiak Superior Court from 2003 to 2008, and the Valdez District Court from 1997 to 2003. Bolger received his bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Iowa in 1976 and his J.D. from the University of Iowa College of Law in 1978.
Under Alaska law, state supreme court justices are selected by the governor with help from a seven-member nominating commission. The commission provides a list of two or more candidates to the governor, who must choose from that list. New justices serve an initial term of at least three years, after which the justice must stand for retention in a yes-no election to remain on the bench. Subsequent terms last 10 years. The chief justice of the supreme court is selected by peer vote and serves a three-year term.
In addition to Chief Justice Bolger, the Alaska Supreme Court currently includes the following justices:
Daniel Winfree – Appointed by Gov. Sarah Palin (R) in 2008
Peter Maassen – Appointed by Gov. Sean Parnell (R) in 2012
Susan Carney – Appointed by Gov. Sean Parnell (R) in 2012
Dario Borghesan – Appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) in 2020
In 2021, there will be three supreme court vacancies in two of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. The vacancies are due to retirements. One vacancy—South Dakota—is in a state where a Republican governor appoints the replacement. The second vacancy—Colorado—is in a state where a Democratic governor appoints the replacement, and the vacancy in Alaska is in a state where a Republican governor appoints the replacement.
In 2020, there have been 23 supreme court vacancies in 16 of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. One vacancy occurred when a chief justice died, one vacancy occurred when a justice was not retained, and 21 vacancies were caused by retirements.
Alaska Ballot Measure 2 was approved with 50.5% of the vote reported as of November 17. Ballot Measure 2 was designed to make several changes to Alaska’s election policies, including:
* replacing partisan primaries with open top-four primaries for state executive, state legislative, and congressional offices;
* establishing ranked-choice voting for general elections, including the presidential election, in which voters can rank the candidates; and
* requiring persons and entities that contribute more than $2,000 that were themselves derived from donations, contributions, dues, or gifts to disclose the sources of the contributions.
Under Ballot Measure 2, Alaska is the first state to adopt top-four primaries for state executive, state legislative, and congressional offices. Like the top-two systems in California and Washington, candidates run in a single primary election, regardless of a candidate’s party affiliation. Unlike in California and Washington, where the two candidates who receive the most votes move onto the general election ballot, Ballot Measure 2 moves the four candidates who receive the most votes onto general election ballots.
At the general election, voters elect state and federal candidates using ranked-choice voting. For state executive, state legislative, and congressional elections, voters rank the four candidates that advanced from their top-four primaries. A candidate needs a simple majority of the vote (50%+1) to be declared the winner of an election. If no candidate wins a simple majority of the vote, the candidate with the fewest votes would be eliminated. People who voted for that candidate as their first choice would have their votes redistributed to their second choice. The tabulation process would continue in rounds until there are two candidates remaining, and the candidate with the greatest number of votes would be declared the winner.
Ballot Measure 2 gives ranked-choice voting proponents their second statewide win after Maine approved Question 5 in 2016. In 2020, Massachusetts also voted on a ranked-choice ballot measure, but it was defeated. On November 3, local ranked-choice voting ballot measures were approved in Albany and Eureka, California; Boulder, Colorado; and Bloomington and Minnetonka, Minnesota.
Alaskans for Better Elections led the campaign in support of Ballot Measure 2. Through October 24, 2020, the campaign’s committees had raised $6.8 million, with contributions from several organizations that seek to change election policies. Action Now Initiative was the largest donor, providing $2.8 million. Unite America was the second-largest donor, providing $2.7 million. Former Rep. Jason Grenn (Independent) was chairperson of the campaign. Green described the ballot initiative as “kind of a three-pronged attack on making our elections better.” Speaker of the Alaska State House Bryce Edgmon (Independent) supported Ballot Measure 2, as did the Alaska Libertarian Party and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld (R).
Defend Alaska Elections led the campaign in opposition to Ballot Measure 2. Through October 24, Defend Alaska Elections, along with the Protect Our Elections PAC, had raised $472,836. The Alaska Republican Party provided $50,000 to Defend Alaska Elections. The Republican State Leadership Committee also provided $50,000. John Sturgeon, the chairperson of Defend Alaska Elections, described Ballot Measure 2 as “a 25-page-long mess that isn’t fair, democratic, or needed.” Former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich (D) and former Gov. Sean Parnell (R) opposed Ballot Measure 2.
Ballot Measure 2’s system of top-four primaries and ranked-choice voting general elections will be first used in 2022, which includes the gubernatorial, U.S. House, and a U.S. Senate election in Alaska.
Currently, four of the justices on the court were appointed by a Republican governor while one was appointed by an independent governor.
The governor appoints the five justices of the supreme court through a hybrid nominating commission where neither the governor nor the Alaska State Bar Association has majority control over the judicial nominating commission. The Alaska Judicial Council is made up of seven members: three lawyers (appointed by the board of governors of the Alaska Bar Association), three non-lawyer members (appointed by the governor and confirmed by a majority of the legislature in joint session), and is chaired by the chief justice of the supreme court.
New justices must face a retention election during the next general election after they serve at least three years on the bench. Justices then stand for retention every ten years with a mandatory retirement age of 70. Since 2008, justices facing retention elections have won 98% of the time. In Alaska, there has not been a single justice that lost retention during this same time frame.
Alaska, Florida, and Wyoming held statewide primaries on August 18, 2020. Candidates competed to advance to the general election scheduled for November 3.
There were 265 state legislative seats up for election, including 45 state Senate seats, and 220 state House seats.
The following information was current as of August 20. At that time, some races were still too close to call.
• Across the three states, 206 incumbents filed for re-election to the 265 seats. Preliminary results indicate at least nine incumbents were defeated.
• In the state Senate elections, 33 incumbents filed for 45 seats. At least two did not advance to the general election. In the state House elections, 173 incumbents competed for re-election to 220 seats. At least seven were defeated.
The next statewide primary will be held on September 1 in Massachusetts.
Congressional primary elections for two U.S. Senate seats and 29 U.S. House seats were held in Alaska, Florida, and Wyoming on August 18, 2020. Candidates competed to advance to the general election scheduled for November 3, 2020.
One U.S. Senate seat and the sole at-large U.S. House seat were on the ballot in Alaska. The incumbents in both races filed for re-election. Sen. Daniel S. Sullivan (R) was unopposed and advanced to the general election. Rep. Don Young (R) faced challengers in the primary. He advanced to the general election.
All 27 U.S. House seats in Florida were on the ballot. Twenty-five incumbents—13 Democrats and 12 Republicans—filed for re-election. Fifteen incumbents were unopposed and advanced automatically. Ten remaining incumbents faced challengers in the primary. One incumbent lost his bid for re-election, Rep. Ross Spano (R-15). Rep. Ted Yoho (R-3) did not file for re-election, and Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19) withdrew prior to the election. As of August 19, 2020, the results for the 3rd Congressional District Democratic primary and the 7th Congressional District Republican primary were too close to call.
One U.S. Senate seat and the one at-large U.S. House seat were on the ballot in Wyoming. Sen. Mike Enzi (R) did not file for re-election to the U.S. Senate. Rep. Liz Cheney (R) filed for re-election to the U.S. House. Cheney faced one challenger in the primary and advanced to the general election.
Entering the 2020 election, Alaska’s U.S. congressional delegation has two Republican senators and one Republican representative. Florida has two Republican senators, 14 Republican representatives, and 13 Democratic representatives. Wyoming has two Republican senators and one Republican representative. The U.S. Senate has 45 Democrats, 53 Republicans, and two independents who caucus with the Democratic Party. Only 33 out of 100 Senate seats are up for regular election, and two seats are up for special election. A majority in the chamber requires 51 seats. The U.S. House has 232 Democrats, 198 Republicans, one Libertarian, and four vacancies. All 435 seats are up for election. A majority in the chamber requires 218 seats.
A special election primary is being held on August 18 for District M of the Alaska State Senate. Anita Thorne and Nicholas Willie are running in the Democratic primary. Josh Revak, Harold Borbridge, and Ray Metcalfe are running in the Republican primary. The general election is being held on November 3.
The seat became vacant after Chris Birch (R) passed away on August 8, 2019. Birch had represented the district since January 2019. Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) appointed Josh Revak to the seat on September 27, 2019.
Heading into the special election, Republicans have a 13-7 majority in the Alaska Senate. Alaska has a divided government, and no political party holds a state government trifecta. A trifecta exists when one political party simultaneously holds the governor’s office and majorities in both state legislative chambers.
As of August, 56 state legislative special elections have been scheduled for 2020 in 26 states. Between 2011 and 2019, an average of 77 special elections took place each year.
On August 18, Alaska, Florida, and Wyoming are holding statewide primaries. Between these three states, 31 congressional seats are up for election, and three of those seats are open, meaning the incumbent did not run for re-election.
Alaska has one U.S. Senate seat and one at-large U.S. House seat up for election. Incumbent Sen. Daniel Sullivan (R) is running for re-election to his Class II Senate seat and is uncontested in the August 18 Republican primary. Four candidates are on the ballot in the Democratic and Independence Parties primary for the seat; the winner will advance to the November general election. Incumbent Rep. Don Young (R) is running for re-election to Alaska’s at-large House seat, and he will face two challengers in the Republican primary. Three candidates are running in the Democratic and Independence Parties primary for the seat.
Florida does not have a U.S. Senate seat up for election in 2020. All 27 of the state’s U.S. House seats are up for election, and 25 of the 27 congressional incumbents filed for re-election. District 3 Rep. Ted Yoho (R) and District 19 Rep. Francis Rooney (R) are the two incumbents who did not file to run. Three Democrats and 10 Republicans are on the primary ballot for Yoho’s District 3 seat, and two Democrats and nine Republicans are on the primary ballot for Rooney’s District 19 seat.
Wyoming is holding elections for one U.S. Senate seat and one at-large U.S. House seat. A field of six Democrats and 10 Republicans are competing in the August 18 primaries for retiring incumbent Mike Enzi’s (R) open Class II Senate seat. The winner of each primary will advance to the November general election. Incumbent Rep. Liz Cheney (R) faces one challenger in the Republican primary for Wyoming’s at-large House seat. Three candidates are on the ballot in the Democratic primary to advance to the general election.
These primaries are the 43rd through the 45th primaries to take place in the 2020 election cycle. The next statewide primary will be held on September 1 in Massachusetts.