Alaska's ranked-choice voting system attracts national attention
October 4, 2023
Alaska’s ranked-choice voting system, which was in place for victories last year by the state’s first Democratic U.S. House member in half a century and the reelection of one of the last remaining moderate Republican U.S. senators, has become a test case for a nation struggling with political polarization.
To fans, Alaska’s system shows how voters can reduce extremism and increase civility in government.
To detractors, it is an overly complex system that fails to reflect true voter preferences and harms loyal party candidates, especially conservative Republicans.
As more states and municipalities consider adopting ranked-choice voting, Alaska’s experience is getting increased scrutiny.
“Alaska is looked at as a model,” said Tiffany Montemayor, a former Alaska Division of Elections official who helped run the system during the 2022 election. Montemayor now lives in Texas and just started a job with the national Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center.
One reason that Alaska is a model, she said, is that the state was the most recent jurisdiction to roll out the system and operate it through an election cycle.
“It was successful there — not trying to be biased,” she said. Even if it had not been successful, she said, Alaska’s system would have been examined as a case study of what not to do, she said.
The system involves an open primary election, through which the top four vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to the general election, where voters have the option of ranking the candidates. If a candidate in the first count has a majority of the first-preference votes, they win. But if not, the trailing candidates’ votes are reassigned to their voters’ next preferences until there is a winner with a majority of the counted ballots.
The national spotlight on Alaska intensified after what was seen by some as a surprise victory by Democrat Mary Peltola in an August special election to fill the remainder of the term of Rep. Don Young, a Republican who held the seat for 49 years until his death on March 18, 2022. Peltola, the first Alaska Native to serve in the U.S. House, won a full term in November.
In both August and November, she bested former Gov. and GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the second-place finisher.
Supporters outside of Alaska laud the system for forging compromise.
“Think our politics stink? Look north – to Alaska,” was the headline of a July essay by Los Angeles Times columnist Mark Barabak. He cited not just Peltola’s victory but that of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a “relatively moderate mainstream Republican” who beat “a MAGA fundamentalist trying to avenge Murkowski’s vote” to impeach former President Donald Trump, a reference to Republican candidate Kelly Tshibaka.
But once Peltola won the special election, criticism began pouring in from the Lower 48.
Trump, who came to Alaska to campaign for Palin and Tshibaka, bashed it as “a totally rigged deal.” Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton called it “a scam to rig elections.”
Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz was blunt: “I gotta say it sucks for Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin is a friend of mine,” he said. “And it sucks even worse for the people of Alaska.”
Palin and Tshibaka have become headliners in an initiative campaign seeking to repeal the ranked-choice system by getting the issue on the 2024 Alaska ballot. That campaign itself has been controversial, with the Alaska Public Offices Commission finding that a group opposing ranked-choice voting had committed multiple violations of state law, including an illegal funneling of $90,000 from a tax-exempt religious organization.
Before Alaska implemented the new system in 2022, only Maine used ranked-choice voting for statewide elections — in its case, just for congressional elections.
Last fall, voters in Nevada approved the first step toward a system similar to that of Alaska, though a follow-up statewide vote is needed for it to go into effect. Also last fall, voters in King County, Washington, home to Seattle, approved ranked-choice voting. That adds the county to a list of other local governments that use it.
There are now active campaigns elsewhere to adopt the system statewide, including in South Carolina and Kentucky.
But other states have banned ranked-choice voting, including Florida, Montana, South Dakota and Tennessee.
Idaho is a special case. After legislators voted overwhelmingly to ban it earlier this year, there is movement afoot to institute it anyway, through a citizens initiative.
Palin, who was born in Idaho, has become part of the debate there. The former Alaska governor was a featured speaker at a Republican party event in Idaho Falls.
Some Democratic leaders have opposed ranked-choice voting. In 2020, that included former Alaska U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, who teamed with former Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, to campaign against the ballot initiative. “This ballot measure will have the opposite effect — potentially locking political parties out of the general election, and making Alaskans doubt if their vote even counts,” said the Begich-Parnell statement of opposition, which was part of the state’s official election brochure.
As Lower 48 advocates on either side of the issue consider the way ranked-choice voting affected Peltola and Murkowski, some of the most profound impacts of the new system may have been on the Alaska Legislature.
The system benefited some Republican legislative candidates, but it also helped tilt the state Senate to its current bipartisan coalition. A key result was in South Anchorage, where Republican Cathy Giessel, who previously served as Senate president in a bipartisan coalition, regained her seat in 2022 against a Republican party-backed candidate who opposed the bipartisan approach. Giessel is now majority leader of a bipartisan coalition holding 17 of the Senate’s 20 seats.
Alaska’s experience with ranked-choice voting may be short-lived, however.
Alaska pollster Ivan Moore said his polling has consistently shown opposition to the system and support for its repeal. In his most recent poll, he found repeal supported by 54% of respondents. He has not yet conducted a poll about why opponents object to the system, he said.
His polling has also identified a puzzling phenomenon. While Peltola is cited as beneficiary of ranked-choice voting, she is also consistently the most popular statewide politician, by a wide margin. And a third of those who rate her positively are opposed to ranked-choice voting, he said.
The ranked-choice system supporters should target that slice of Peltola fans, Moore said. “One of the aspects would be, ‘You like Mary Peltola. You got her because of ranked-choice voting,’” he said.
The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. Alaskabeacon.com.