Four years ago, Bernie Sanders absolutely crushed it in the Alaska Democratic Party’s caucuses. Facing Hillary Clinton, Sanders took home a whopping 79.6 percent of the popular vote equivalent in the March 26 contest, the highest vote total other than his home state of Vermont.
Fast forward to this weekend when the party tallied the ballot cast in its first-ever by-mail ranked-choice primary election in the midst of a global epidemic, and things couldn’t have been more different for the Vermont senator. Sanders, who officially suspended his campaign three days before the voters were counted, finished a distant second to presumptive nominee Joe Biden.
According to the Alaska Democratic Party’s Saturday-night count, Biden took home 10,834 votes from the party’s first-ever by-mail ranked-choice primary election or 55.3% of the vote. Sanders won 8,755 votes or 44.%.
While other candidates had formally withdrawn from the race, Sanders requested to keep his name on the ballot as did Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. Neither Warren nor Gabbard cleared the 15 percent threshold to receive votes and had their votes doled out based on the ballot rankings. A total of 19,759 votes were cast on the ranked-choice ballots, meaning there were 170 voters who didn’t include either Biden or Sanders on their ballot.
Biden secured nine delegates in voting and Sanders secured eight. Delegates to the Democratic National Convention will be selected at the party’s statewide convention, which will be held digitally on May 15-16.
Alaska Democratic Party officials hailed the voting, which had its deadline extended after the already-limited options for in-person voting were axed amid COVID-19 concerns, success that drew nearly twice as many participants than the 2016 caucuses.
“Last week we witnessed the horrible sight of Wisconsin voters forced to stand in long lines, risking their health to cast their votes because Democratic efforts to cancel in-person voting were stymied by Republicans. We are proud that holding a party-run primary allowed us to make decisions as events unfolded and shift to all vote by mail while maintaining the health and safety of our team,” said ADP Executive Director Lindsay Kavanaugh in a prepared statement. “We extended our deadline and implemented the use of a downloadable ballot to give Alaska Democrats as much opportunity as possible to cast their votes under very difficult circumstances.”
Why it matters
With a voter initiative to implement ranked-choice voting in Alaska’s general elections on this year’s ballot, the Alaska Democratic Party’s primary serves as an interesting test case for people wondering how such a system might benefit or hinder certain candidates. But the Alaska Democratic Party made several sweeping changes to its party-run election this year that make judging the impact of ranked-choice voting impossible to separate from the other structural changes or the overall difference in the race.
There is a pandemic going on, after all.
It might be easy to seize on the topline takeaway that Sanders’ performance plummeted under the new system but would be ignoring the significantly different state of the presidential race. 2020 saw many more candidates enter this time with Sanders holding a front-runner position throughout much of the early stages of the race. That also lead to a far more combative attitude between centrist Democrats and the more progressive wing of the party. Fair or not, Sanders saw much more negative campaigning than 2016.
Sanders had also officially suspended his campaign just days before the votes were counted. Though many of the ballots were cast when Sanders was officially still running, the suspension last week was inevitable as Sanders’ chances of winning had vanished.
Perhaps the only solid takeaway from this year’s presidential primary is that the by-mail system had far higher turnout when compare to the time-intensive caucus system. It’s another bullet point in the support for mail elections, following the uptick in turnout after Anchorage switched to mail-in ballots for its municipal elections.
Unfortunately, though, by-mail elections are not on this year’s ballot.
Alaska’s voting system is still an in-person system and efforts to push to mail-in ballots have generally been opposed by Republicans who’ve claimed concerns about voter fraud. This year, though, Alaskans might get a taste of a voting by mail thanks to emergency laws that would allow elections to be moved to a by-mail system if in-person voting can’t be safely conducted.