Explaining Alaska’s Election Reforms: Ranked Choice Voting

Elections & Politics Policy Brief #37 | By: Ian Milden | September 28, 2022

Header photo taken from: Mark Thiessen / The Associated Press




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Democrat Mary Peltola won a special election following a reform on voting to fill Alaska’s House seat for the remainder of 2022, according to unofficial results released by the Alaska Division of Elections, halting former Gov. Sarah Palin’s bid at a political comeback.

Photo taken from: CNN

Policy Summary

In the recent special election to replace the late Congressman Don Young (R-AK), Mary Peltola (D-AK) defeated former Governor Sarah Palin (R-AK) and Nick Begich (R-AK). This brief will examine the recent election reforms in Alaska that led to the upset and how they may affect the U.S. House and Senate races this year. The brief will also briefly discuss the implications of ranked choice voting.

Policy Analysis

Alaska implemented a ranked choice voting system after approving it in a ballot referendum in 2020. The system has a primary where all candidates compete for four spots on the general election ballot. The primary is not separated by party, similar to primary elections in California and Louisiana. The four slots on the general election ballot are reserved for the candidates with the four highest vote totals, regardless of party affiliation.

In the general election, voters then have the option to rank candidates. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote in the initial ballot count, the votes for the last-place candidate are redistributed to the second-choice candidate of those voters. This process is repeated with the third-place candidate if no candidate has a majority of the votes after the last-place candidate is eliminated. Voters are not obligated to pick a second or third choice.

Nick Begich (R-AK) was the third-place candidate in the special election, so the people who selected him over Sarah Palin and Mary Peltola had their votes redistributed. Many of Begich’s supporters did not choose to support Palin or Peltola. Some of Begich’s supporters had Peltola as their second choice due to their distaste for Palin, which helped Peltola win.

U.S. House Race

The special election only filled the seat for the remainder of Don Young’s term, which expires in January of 2023. Mary Peltola, Sarah Palin, and Nick Begich will all be in the general election again in November. While the candidates will be the same, the results can be different this fall.

Alaska Vote 1
Detractors of ranked choice voting often argue that the system is too confusing for voters to understand. But a large majority of Alaskans found the act of ranking easy.

Graph taken from: Sightline Institute

(click or tap to enlargen)

Special elections have unusual voter turnout patterns and low participation rates, so a normalized electorate may help the Republicans perform better in November. It’s also possible that Republicans vote differently to improve the chances of a Republican winning the election after seeing the results of the special election.

However, there isn’t any history to examine to make predictions on voter behavior.

U.S. Senate Race

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) is running for re-election. Her main opponent is Kelly Tshibaka. Democrat Patricia Chesboro and Republican Buzz Kelley will also appear on the general election ballot, but neither of them got over 10% of the vote in the primary. Kelley recently suspended his campaign and endorsed Tshibaka, though his name will still be on the ballot.

Tshibaka has held roles in the Alaska state government with the most recent being in the Alaska Department of Administration. Tshibaka is positioning herself to be a more conservative alternative to Senator Murkowski. Based on the primary votes and my educated guess on voter behavior, Murkowski will likely pick up Chesboro’s supporters when votes are redistributed if no candidate receives a majority of the votes. Murkowski finished ahead of Tshibaka in the primary and won a majority of the Republican vote in the primary.

The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), recently canceled an advertising campaign planned to help Senator Murkowski’s campaign. Officials with the super PAC said that they canceled the reserved campaign ad time because they expect Murkowski to win.

Implications of Ranked Choice Voting

Ranked Choice Voting is not necessarily better or worse than the plurality winner systems used by most jurisdictions in the United States. Ken Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem argues that no election system is perfect. While I am not personally endorsing or condemning ranked choice voting, voters may have to consider the benefits and consequences of ranked choice voting.

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With more than 35 percent of Nevada voters unable to vote in a primary because they are registered as independent or non-partisan, and many more feeling under-represented by their respective party, Nevada is looking to replace the primary system with a rank choice one, following Alaska’s example.

Photo taken from: Daniel Clark / The Nevada Independent

(click or tap to enlargen)

Some organizations, such as the nonprofit FairVote, are pushing for the implementation of ranked choice voting through ballot initiatives, like the one that will appear on Nevada’s ballot this fall. The supporters of ranked choice voting may present an overly optimistic view of ranked choice voting that glosses over or ignores the potential challenges and drawbacks of ranked choice voting, such as the long time it takes to redistribute votes from eliminated candidates. This process took three weeks in Alaska’s special election.

A major selling point for ranked choice voting is that it allows voters to do more to express their preferences. While ranked choice voting may allow voters to express some form of preference among the available candidates, the ranking and redistribution of votes may not accurately reflect the overall preferences of the electorate. The special election for Alaska’s U.S. House race reflects this because most voters would have preferred a Republican candidate for the seat, but a Democrat ended up winning because the Republican candidate with more votes after the first round was unpopular within her own party. As long as Alaska continues to use this election system, the redistribution of votes can impact election results in this manner.

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