Alaska Republicans Should Learn a Lesson About Altering Election Rules from Georgia

Elections & Politics Policy Brief #51 | By: Ian Milden | February 2, 2023

Header photo taken from: Sightline Institute

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Brochures are displayed at the Alaska Division of Elections office in Anchorage, detailing changes to future elections held in the Last Frontier.

Photo taken from: The Associated Press

Policy Summary

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After Democrat Mary Peltola (D-AK) won a special election for a U.S. House seat and the subsequent general election, Republicans in the Alaska state legislature are attempting to abolish the all-party primary system that was established by a voter referendum before the special election. 

This Brief will discuss why this won’t get Alaska Republicans the result they want by examining the 2022 elections in Alaska. To support my arguments, I’ll also look at the Georgia runoffs from 2020 and 2022, where Republicans changed the rules and still didn’t win.

Policy Analysis

62697824787c8d629f619d73 Figure 2 Voters Ranked Candidates for More Choice Voice
Violating the “one person, one vote” tradition of normal voting practices, republicans are critical of allowing voters to cast their ballots to multiple candidates. They claim that ranked-choice voting makes it more difficult to elect moderate candidates when the electorate is polarized.

For example, in a three-person race, the moderate candidate may be preferred to each of the more extreme candidates by a majority of voters. However, voters with far-left and far-right views will rank the candidate in second place rather than in first place. Since ranked-choice voting counts only the number of first-choice votes (among the remaining candidates), the moderate candidate would be eliminated in the first round, leaving one of the extreme candidates to be declared the winner, which is what happened in Alaska.

Chart taken from: Unite America, The Hill

(click or tap to enlargen)

In the 2020 election, voters in Alaska approved a ballot initiative that changed the primary system to have everyone compete in the same primary. The top four candidates from the primary advance to the general election. 

I wrote about this system in a previous brief after the Special Election last year. In wake of the Democrat’s victories in 2022, a bill has been filed to repeal the new election system in Alaska. While it is unclear what the chances of this bill passing are, this legislation mirrors a recent trend of Republicans filing legislation at the state level to make changes to election rules based on trends they did not like.

Of all of the states where Republicans changed election laws, the best state that Republicans can take away a lesson from is Georgia. After Democrats won both U.S. Senate seats in a runoff in 2021, Republicans in the state legislature passed legislation to reduce the length of time for the runoff and severely restrict new registrations before the runoffs. One of the two U.S. Senate seats was up in 2022 (due to the 2020 election being a special election), and Republicans lost. 

The reason Republicans lost was that they nominated a candidate, Herschel Walker, who had trouble getting the support of all Republican voters. Walker and his campaign also never successfully figured out how to respond to stories about his character or questions about his qualifications for public office, which hurt his chances of winning.

Alaska Republicans had the same problem in 2022. Sarah Palin is disliked by many Republicans, and that prevented her from being able to win. Some Republicans disliked Palin so much that they voted for Peltola, the Democrat,  after Republican candidate Nick Begich was out of the running. 

Changing the rules to a traditional partisan primary and general election system likely would not have changed the result. Palin had more support among Republicans than any other candidate in the primary, but she did not have enough support to win the winner-take-all  General Election. The limited existing body of polling data from 2022 reinforces this argument.

If Republicans are serious about taking steps to win back the U.S. House seat in Alaska, they need to focus on recruiting and supporting better candidates for public office. Sarah Palin is very well-known, polarizing, and thoroughly caricatured by Saturday Night Live. There was little that Palin could have done to get voters to improve their impressions of her. 

While Palin is a unique figure in Alaska politics, the challenges that Republicans face in recruiting and supporting better candidates for public office are a problem nationally. Republicans did not unseat any incumbent Democrats in U.S. Senate races last year because the candidates Republicans chose had significant issues with their backgrounds and qualifications for office and took positions on issues such as abortion that alienated some members of their party’s coalition. 

Until Republicans figure out how to improve their selection process for their own nominees, they won’t achieve the results they are hoping for by tampering with election rules.

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