After Republican voters seemingly delivered a Democrat Alaska’s sole congressional seat Wednesday night, right-wing commentators declared ranked-choice voting a terrible, no good, very bad idea.
“Ranked-choice voting is a scam to rig elections,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who incidentally has never participated in a close election in his political career.
“I hope Alaska kills off the GOP desire for ranked choice voting in other states just as Trump winning in 2016 killed off their desire for the electoral college to conform to the popular vote,” commented talk radio host Erick Erickson.
“At Sarah Palin’s campaign headquarters there was confusion and then anger when the results were announced,” reported Sean Maguire of the Anchorage Daily News. “She railed against ranked choice voting, called on Nick Begich to drop out and said the fight is just getting started.”
A few days before the Alaska results were in, Arizona Republican Tyler Bowyer argued ranked-choice voting and independent redistricting commissions – two reforms meant to decrease extreme partisanship and political party control – would lead to Democratic election landslides.
But, contrary to the latest GOP talking points, a recent poll found that the vast majority of Alaskans said filling out a ranked-choice ballot was simple.
Also, the voting method doesn’t necessarily favor one party or another, though it does tend to favor candidates who have some crossover appeal for voters: New York Mayor Eric Adams (D) and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) both won the party nominations for their current jobs in ranked-choice elections.
So what really happened in Alaska?
Dem Maneuvered Around Republican Infighting For A Win
Ranked-choice voting, which Alaska voters made state law with a ballot initiative in 2020, is simple: If no single candidate wins an outright majority at first, then the candidate who garnered the fewest votes is eliminated, and votes for that candidate are redistributed to whichever candidate those voters ranked as their second choice – if they chose to rank anyone at all. The votes are then re-tabulated, and the process repeats, with the least-successful candidate being eliminated until someone wins a majority.
What happened in Alaska shows ranked-choice voting in action: When the race came down to three candidates running to serve the remainder of Rep. Don Young’s (R) term, Mary Peltola (D) led with 40.2% of the vote. Sarah Palin (R) received 31.3% of the vote, and Nick Begich (R) received 28.5% of the vote.
So, as the lowest vote-getter, Begich was eliminated. Votes cast for him were redistributed to his voters’ second choices. And here’s the dynamic that delivered the race for the Democrat: Among Begich’s first-choice voters, 50.3% of second-choice votes went to Palin, his fellow Republican, but a whopping 28.7% went to Democrat Peltola – bipartisan voters. What’s more, fully 21% of Begich’s voters had ranked neither Palin nor Peltola below him. Peltola ultimately beat Palin by a three-point margin, 51.5% to 48.5%.
As the Alaska-based journalist Dermot Cole observed a few days ago, before the final count was known, “voters who made Begich their first choice will decide whether Peltola or Palin will be the temporary representative.” Princeton’s Sam Wang wrote Thursday, after the vote was tallied, “people who preferred Begich or Palin could have their vote get reassigned to the other Republican. But not enough of them did that.”
In other words, not only was Peltola helped by Begich voters who ranked her below him; she also benefited from Begich voters who didn’t like Palin, and chose to not rank Palin below Begich.
Ranked-choice voting promotes civility and coalition building; Palin and Begich antagonized each other during the campaign, a dynamic of Republican-on-Republican insults.
Meanwhile, Peltola was diplomatic.
“I feel camaraderie and a sense of fraternity with both Nick and Sarah,” she said of her Republican opponents, referring to them as “people I’m going to be working with for the rest of my life, whether I win the race or not.”