What happens when you combine an all-in or “jungle” primary with ranked-choice voting in the general election? Putting the two modern “innovations” on elections together in Alaska produced this absurd result, in which Republicans lost a House seat despite getting 60% of the vote.
And get ready for it to happen all over again in two months:
Final margin: Peltola (D) defeats Palin (R) 51.5%-48.5% in the final round of ranked-choice. This is a huge victory and pickup for Dems, driven more by Palin's unpopularity than national trends. #AKAL
— Dave Wasserman (@Redistrict) September 1, 2022
Democrat Mary Peltola, a former state representative, will be the first Alaska Native in Congress after she won a special election that included GOP candidates Nick Begich and former Gov. Sarah Palin, NBC News projects.
Peltola, who is the executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, served 10 years in the state Legislature and campaigned as “Alaska’s best shot at keeping an extremist from winning.”
“It is a GOOD DAY,” Peltola tweeted following the election results. “We’ve won tonight, but we’re still going to have to hold this seat in November.”
Given that the candidates will be the same, Peltola has a good chance of succeeding at it. This was a perfect storm of absurdity that produced an unrepresentative if still legally legitimate result. The problem here isn’t cheating — the result is legitimate. It’s the jury-rigged Alaska election system that’s absurd.
First off, Alaska has chosen to use all-in primaries instead of party primaries. Other states have adopted these as well, notably California, but they use those to narrow down the general election to a run-off between the top two vote-getters. Alaska puts the top four finishers on its general-election ballot, but requires a majority to win. Rather than use a subsequent runoff between the top two of the general election, Alaska requires voters to fill out second and third choices between the four candidates … and then goes through a ridiculous process to assign those ranked choices if one candidate doesn’t get 50% — which this system all but guarantees will happen. After several days of machinations, Alaska finally announces who won.
And in this case, the party that got 60% of the vote lost to the party that got 40% of the vote. Huh?
In the first round of voting, the results were 40.2 percent for Peltola, 31.3 percent for Palin, and 28.5 percent for Republican Nick Begich. Although 60 percent of Alaska voters cast ballots for GOP candidates as their first choice, under Alaska’s new ranked-choice-voting method, Begich was eliminated after the first round of voting and Begich votes that indicated a preferred second choice were allocated among Peltola and Palin.
Part of this comes from animus between Palin and the GOP establishment. Twenty percent of Begich voters refused to put Palin as a second choice, and even more that voted for Peltola rather than vote for Palin:
If I'm reading the blurry screen correctly, Peltola (D) was aided by a huge "exhaustion" rate among Begich voters. Begich's ballots broke down:
Palin (R) 50.3%
Peltola (D) 28.8%
No second choice (exhaust): 20.9%
In the end, Palin was so disliked #AKAL wasn't even that close.
— Dave Wasserman (@Redistrict) September 1, 2022
Note well that this is a problem that got worse when combining all of these elements. Had the parties held their own primaries, we would have had either two or three candidates on the general-election ballot (Alaskans are pretty good at supporting write-ins, you’ll recall). Had Alaska set up its primary system to allow the top two finishers to the general-election ballot, there wouldn’t have been any need for ranked-choice voting in the first place. Had Alaska just used a first-past-the-post system, Peltola still would have won, but without wasting several days and using an opaque process to get to the end result.
Instead, Peltola won a House seat with 38.9% of the initial vote in a state that requires majorities to win. And that tends to underscore Palin’s consistent criticism of Alaska’s electoral “innovations”:
“The only people who benefit from Ranked Choice Voting are career politicians and the special interests that are in bed with them. The people of Alaska, on the other hand, are frustrated, confused, and discouraged. People are worried that their vote won’t count – or worse, that they’ll accidentally end up voting in a way that benefits a candidate they oppose. As I keep saying: we are being disenfranchised!”
Palin has called for Ballot Measure 2 — the 2020 question posed to voters that almost failed to pass and institute the ranked-choice system — to be repealed and for Alaska to return to “a straightforward, common-sense system that elects the candidate who earns the most votes.”
The former governor noted that “Alaska is the test-case this election season, the first in the nation with these new elements of a perfectly bad storm” and warned “concerned citizens across America to pay attention and not allow this to slither its way into our other 49 states.”
Ranked-choice voting is only part of the problem. Alaska needs to limit its innovations — either RCV, jungle primaries, or 50%-plus-1, but not all three together. The combination is almost guaranteed to produce absurdities such as Peltola’s <40% win in a state that requires a majority vote. That’s not a representative Representative, and perhaps Alaskans might wake up to the risks that their Rube Goldberg electoral systems created.
Voters should get to cast one ballot per election for the candidate of their choice. That ballot should not get diluted with ranked choice recalculations. Ballots should also be cast on paper, where votes can be counted and recounted by optical-scan readers and by hand if necessary. States should either choose to require majorities or use most-votes-wins systems, but not both at the same time. We don’t need innovations — we need consistent and rational electoral systems that allow voters to send a clear message with their ballot.