Above photo: Former Gov. Sarah Palin listens as Democratic candidate Mary Peltola speaks at an Aug. 31, 2022, candidate forum held by the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. Minutes after the forum concluded, the Alaska Division of Elections released results showing that Peltola had beaten Palin to win the special election to fill the remainder of the late Don Young’s House term. Palin, Peltola, Republican Nick Begich and Libertarian Chris Bye then faced each other in the election for the full two-year term. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska’s ranked-choice voting system, which was in place for victories for the 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 carry out 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 advance to further consideration. In the general election, voters have the option of ranking up to four 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.
The system got plenty of attention well before Alaska’s votes were tallied. To observe Alaska’s 2022 election experience up close, Montemayor said, several observers from elsewhere came to the state last year. One was a political science professor from Australia, a country where ranked-choice voting has been in use for more than a century.
The national spotlight 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, like former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, 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” in favor of impeaching 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.” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, called it “a scam to rig elections. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in a September 2022 podcast said the system was “designed to rig the election” and “make it incredibly difficult to elect a conservative.”
“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. 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.
Ranked choice systems expanding in some places, banned in others
Prior to Alaska implementing 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. A ranked-choice system has also been used in some states’ party primaries. There are now active campaigns elsewhere to adopt the system statewide, including in South Carolina, where Yang made a pitch earlier in the year, and Kentucky.
But other states have banned ranked choice voting, including Florida, Montana, South Dakota and Tennessee.
In South Dakota, for example, state Sen. John Wiik, the prime sponsor of the bill banning ranked choice voting, pointed specifically to Alaska as justification. The ongoing initiative campaign seeking to overturn ranked choice voting, he said, is evidence that it should not be used in South Dakota.
In Idaho, state Republican Party Chair Dorothy Moon asserted in May, incorrectly, that the Alaska Supreme Court found a ranked-choice voting system had “significant errors in the hidden tabulation system caused the wrong candidates to advance to the second and third rounds of counting.” In reality, the state Supreme Court upheld the way the system was administered, albeit with some criticism.
Idaho is a special case. After legislators voted overwhelmingly to ban it earlier this year, with the bill signed by Gov. Brad Little, there is movement afoot to institute it through initiative. Among the high-profile supporters is Butch Otter, a Republican who served three terms as governor.
Otter’s role in the campaign for ranked choice voting drew a sharp response from Moon.
“Beyond being disappointing, this endorsement goes to show how out of touch the old guard has become. They are so afraid of grassroots conservatives upending their gravy train that they are joining hands with Democrats to destroy the Republican Party, and destroy Idaho in the process,” Moon said in a Sept. 14 statement.
Palin, who was born in Idaho, has become part of the debate there. Last month, the former Alaska governor was a featured speaker at a Republican party event in Idaho Falls. “Sarah knows firsthand the dangers of Ranked Choice Voting, and will offer a warning for Idaho,” said the online invitation to the event.
It is a mistake to consider ranked choice voting as left-wing, said Anchorage pollster and consultant Ivan Moore. Alaska history belies that idea, he said.
He pointed to Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles’ narrow three-way election victory in 1994 and Mark Begich’s three-way victory against two Republicans in the 2023 Anchorage mayor’s race. Both went on to easy reelections, and Begich served for a term as a U.S. senator. Ranked choice voting, had it been in effect at the time, would have precluded that, he said. “You’d never have had Tony Knowles as governor. You’d probably never have Mark Begich as mayor,” he said.
Additionally, some Democratic leaders have opposed ranked-choice voting. In 2020, that included 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 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.
Possble repeal in Alaska
Alaska’s experience with ranked-choice voting may be short-lived, however.
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 said. 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.
Montemayor said a vote for repeal would probably be a setback for the national movement “just because it could be misconstrued as, ‘OK, it didn’t work.’” In truth, she said, the new system worked well, and the objections appear to be driven by politics rather than by the system’s efficacy.
“I think there’s a side that’s vocal about it,” she said. “Just because people don’t like it or didn’t like it doesn’t mean that it didn’t work.”
To Moore, an underappreciated aspect of Alaska’s new system is the open primary.
For Murkowski, an unusual Republican who is now more popular with Democrats than Republicans and reviled within her own party, that feature saved her, Moore said. “If she had run in a Republican primary, she would have been, ‘You’re toast,’” he said.
Over much of Alaska’s history, primaries were open. From 1947 to 1992, the state used single ballots for primary elections, allowing voters to consider all candidates regardless of party affiliation. After that, ballots were split in various ways, a change driven largely by the state Republican Party. In 2002, voters had to choose from six primary ballots, with candidates separated by affiliation and with choices limited by voters’ party registration.
The system then changed to something of a hybrid. In 2004, the number of primary ballots was whittled down to three, with one Republican ballot, one open ballot for non-Republican candidates and one for ballot measures alone, without any candidates. In each of the elections from 2016 to 2020, there were two primary election ballots, one for Republican candidates and one with all other candidates, as there were no ballot measures being considered in those primary elections.
As with Alaska’s ranked-choice voting system, there is some pushback nationally on open primaries.
This article is part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, in which news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces. To learn more, visit usdemocracyday.org.