By Margaret Dupree
Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system is experiencing a double-header in 2022. In 2020, Alaskans passed Ballot Measure 2 which created the ranked choice system for general elections, while maintaining a single choice system for primaries. Alaskans still vote for the one candidate of choice in primaries, but in general elections they rank the candidates on their ballots. If one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the first round of calculations (i.e., they were the “First Choice” candidate for more 50% of voters) the vote tabulation stops and does not move to a second round. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote after round one, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated, and the ballots of the voters who chose that losing candidate are recounted using their second choice. This process repeats until a candidate has more than 50% of the vote.
Alaskans voted for the measure during the 2020 presidential election by a margin of 50.55% to 49.45%; turnout for the 2020 election in Alaska was 60.67%. Despite litigation challenging the implementation of the voting system, the Alaska Supreme Court upheld the narrowly-passed ballot measure in early 2022 making it the voting system for the 2022 midterms. However, due to the death of Rep. Don Young in March 2022, ranked choice voting was implemented even earlier than the midterms to fill the at-large seat in August for the remainder of his term.
While many other municipalities across the United States use ranked choice voting, Alaska is only the second state in the nation to implement it; Maine implemented ranked choice voting beginning in 2018. Advocates of ranked choice voting argue that the system results in more representative outcomes, and helps decrease negativity in election cycles. Another benefit of ranked choice voting systems is that it prevents a candidate winning with only a plurality of voters, as opposed to a typical first-past-the-post system which can result in the winning candidate having a minority of the vote in contentious or crowded elections. However, there are critiques that arise, principally that the system is complicated, and that in a polarized political climate, voters will not want to rank candidates. Especially in the current political climate where some Americans and political candidates deny the 2020 election results, the roll out of a new voting system in Alaska over two elections could highlight whether changing voting systems will help temper partisanship and increase voter trust, or whether voting changes will be vulnerable to election denial and distrust.
The Alaska special election results seem to demonstrate both how a change in voting systems can result in surprising victories and be vulnerable to partisan motivations. At the end of August, Democrat Mary Peltola won the special election after voting moved into a second round. At the end of the first round, Republican Nick Begich was in third and was cut from the race. His voters’ second choices were then tabulated, and while Republican Sarah Palin had more of those than Peltola did, enough of Begich’s voters ranked Peltola second, pushing her past the 50% threshold. Peltola is the first Democrat to represent the state since 1972, a state that has voted for the Republican presidential candidate 93.8% of the time since 1960, and of the time since 2000.
While a sizable majority of Alaskans supported the voting system, and 66% of voters actually ranked candidates in the election, prominent politicians have called into question the legitimacy of the voting system, claiming that it is a system that benefits the Democratic Party. Notably, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton tweeted that “60% of Alaska voters voted for a Republican, but thanks to a convoluted process and ballot exhaustion—which disenfranchises voters—a Democrat ‘won.’” This kind of political criticism could hardly be unexpected, especially in the current political climate. However, the criticisms come at a vulnerable time for the electoral system in Alaska; if voters believe these claims are accurate, their trust that their vote counts or that their election laws are fair will decrease. Voters across the U.S. show a decrease in confidence in the democratic system. Distrust in the fairness of election laws and systems is dangerous for democracy, and new changes like those in Alaska are perhaps the most vulnerable.
The 2022 Alaska midterm election in November is the same cast of candidates as the special election. It will be interesting to see if the attacks and critiques on the system will result in fewer Alaskans participating or adhering to a system that is theoretically meant to boost confidence in their election system. If fewer voters rank candidates on their ballots (i.e., opt to pick only one candidate like a traditional ballot), or even decide not to vote at all, it could indicate that partisanship is still a strong factor in voter choice, and that the efforts to ameliorate polarization and distrust are up for a difficult battle.