What to know about Alaska’s consequential low-stakes election

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There’s very little about the special general election for the U.S. House that’s normal, so what better test for Alaska’s brand-new election system? Alaska’s first-ever ranked choice election pits former Gov. Sarah Palin, Nick Begich and Mary Peltola against each other in a race to fill the roughly four months remaining in the late U.S. Rep. Don Young’s term. Just who’s favored in the race depends on who you ask, but the general consensus is that everyone appears to have a reasonably viable path to victory that will depend on how voters approach the strategy of ranked-choice voting.

While there has been plenty of efforts to explain the rules of ranked choice voting—rank as many candidates as you’d like and don’t stack your rankings by ranking multiple candidates in the same position—there’s not been nearly as much to explain the strategy of voting. It’s like reading the rulebook versus playing the game.

This race—as unusual as it is—should go a long way to shaping the strategy for both campaigns and voters as we settle into the new system.

Aside to the solid strategy of simply getting the most votes, the closest we’ve got to messaging in this race has come in the form of Scary Biden-covered mailers from Alaska Republican Party imploring voters to “DON’T RANK MARY PELTOLA, LEAVE HER BLANK” with takeaway that it is OK to rank other Republicans. Whether a handful of mailers broadly shape voting behavior, though, will be tested right away.

The general expectation is Peltola will finish first in terms of first-place votes—somewhere in the 40-45% range—while Palin and Begich will split the remaining votes. Without a candidate crossing that 50% threshold, the race will head into the ranked choice tabulation where the worst-performing candidate is eliminated, and their votes are redistributed according to their voters’ rankings. For both Palin and Begich, the pressing concern is to not finish in third place. That’s led to some bitter campaigning between the two as they try to discredit the other while appealing to the same pool of voters. It’s a pool of voters, it should be noted, that has had the Us vs. Them dynamic hammered into them for the last 40 years.

Meanwhile, as was reported by Alaska Public Media last week, the venom-filled battle between the Republicans has allowed Peltola has been able to play nice and make overtures to conservative voters, the kind that would be critical if she hopes to win enough second-place votes to maintain her expected lead.

Also, before we all start fretting that the race would be a Democratic lay-up if only it were conducted under the traditional election system, remember that the open primary is a product of Ballot Measure 2. Under the old system, the parties would have picked the candidates for the special election, and we wouldn’t have a race between two Republicans and a Democrat.

Anyway, if the conservative votes neatly consolidate around the remaining Republican—whether it be Palin’s voters into Begich or Begich’s voters into Palin—then there’s a very good chance that we’ll have a U.S. Rep. Palin or Begich for the next four months. But as we’ve seen in polling, a neat consolidation of votes is far from a given. There will be Palin and Begich voters who rank Peltola second and others who won’t rank anyone at all.

Also adding a wrinkle is the late-in-the-game announcement from moderate Republican candidate Tara Sweeney, who finished fifth in the special primary election and would have advanced to the special general election had independent candidate Al Gross withdrawn earlier, that she’s filed as an official write-in candidate. Sweeney is one of six write-in candidates, and they’d need to collectively finish either first or a close second for the Division of Elections to count their votes. It’s highly unlikely that any write-in candidate would win but they don’t have to win to make a difference.

Given that Peltola is expected to finish in the top two, the second choice of Peltola voters isn’t likely to come into play in this race but the second-place choices of Begich and Palin voters certainly will. A few thousand Begich/Sweeney voters or Palin/No one voters could very well make all the difference.

Just how this all plays out, though, is a story for later this month. That’s because the tabulation process for the ranked voting doesn’t occur until the Division of Elections receives all eligible ballots, which is currently expected to happen on Aug. 31.

Of course, Palin, Peltola or Begich could settle this issue by simply winning 50%+1 of the votes.

My guide to ranked-choice voting

I’ve written about how we should be approaching ranked-choice voting earlier this summer, which you can find here, but here’s how I’ve been thinking about the ranking process when considering races:

  • First place: The candidate you’d like to win
  • Second place: The candidate you wouldn’t mind winning
  • Third place: The least-bad candidate of the remaining options
  • Fourth place: Generally speaking, it’s going to take something really wild—like a strong write-in campaign—for this vote to ever come into play, in which case this’d go to the pretty-bad but not the worst candidate.

When it’s a three-way race, remove the second-place vote from the equation and slide everything up a spot: Your first-place vote goes who you want, and your second-place vote is for the least-bad of the remaining options. Also, if everyone is terrible, there’s nothing wrong with leaving the rankings empty. It is a free country, after all.

The consequential low-stakes primary election

On first glance, the primary portion of this election is set to have some of the lowest stakes of any in recent memory thanks to the open primary system where most of the big-ticket statewide candidates and all but one of the legislative candidates—one from Fairbanks’ five-way race for House District 35—will continue onto the top-four general election. Gone are the intraparty challenges where Republican primary voters eliminate any “moderate” Republican who fell out of favor by not toeing the party line for the last legislative session.

Now, even though very few candidates will be sent packing, we’ll get a real deal head-to-head snapshot of where voters stand on all these races.

In the past, it was a fool’s errand to try to draw broad conclusions about the state of various races from the primary election. The semi-closed Republican primaries have often been the site of competitive primaries, drawing more participation from an electorate that generally skews more conservative anyways. It took a lot of squinting to even get to an apples-to-oranges comparison. While those issues aren’t entirely gone, this primary election’s results stand to be a better snapshot than we’ve had in the past, informing campaigns and backers what races have some juice and others where it might be wise to cut bait.

That matters because—as much of my labored campaign finance analysis showed—Republicans are generally lagging behind their progressive opponents in just about every race that’s competitive. A poor showing in the primary on top of a massive fundraising gap won’t be particularly convincing about a campaign moving forward. And that’s not to mention the introduction of entirely new voting districts from the latest round of redistricting.

The big-time race in this department is the race between Republican Sen. Mia Costello and Democratic Rep. Matt Claman. Claman has always been a strong fundraiser and this year has not been any different with a grand total of $137,038.57 raised through last Tuesday’s reporting deadline. Costello has surprisingly anemic fundraising for what should be a tough campaign. That hasn’t changed with Claman raising more in the latest cycle—which went from mid-July to the first week of August—than Costello has raised in the entire life of her campaign, which is just $25,130.25.

A bad showing in the primary—which would probably be a product more of the underlying numbers in the post-redistricting district—on top of the poor fundraising could be reason for donors to pull up stakes on Costello and invest their resources elsewhere. A better-than-expected showing, though, and it could inject some much-needed life for the campaign and attract more support moving forward.

Some of the other high-profile races that will be interesting to examine despite the fact no one will be sent packing yet include:

  • The Senate race between Republican incumbent Sen. Roger Holland and former Sen. Cathy Giessel (as well as Democrat Roselynn Cacy).
  • The Senate race between Fairbanks Democratic Sen. Scott Kawasaki and Republican candidate Jim Matherly, where redistricting saw another effort to give the Fairbanks Democrat the boot by piling in more conservative voters.
  • The intraparty Anchorage-area races that pit Reps. Zack Fields against Rep. Harriet Drummond, as well as the Senate race between Rep. Geran Tarr and Anchorage Assemblymember Forrest Dunbar (and Democrat Drew Cason and Republican Andrew Satterfield).
  • Pretty much any race that has the chance of being competitive in November.

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Who finishes fourth?

Of course, there is some intrigue in the statewide races when it comes to who’ll finish fourth. The top three places in each of those races is as close to solidified as possible with Dunleavy, Walker and Gara in the race for governor, Murkowski, Tshibaka and Chesbro in the race for U.S. Senate and Peltola, Palin, Begich in the race for U.S. House.

For the rest of the fields, it’s a race to finish fourth. The likely challengers in each include far-right Republicans Christopher Kurka and Charlie Pierce for governor, oddballs Shoshana Gungurstein and Dustin Darden in the U.S. Senate and it’s likely Republican Tara Sweeney’s spot in the U.S. House race.

To me, the most consequential of the bunch is just who gets into the race for governor. Kurka is likely the bigger headache of the two for Dunleavy, making for an aggressive extreme-right hardline candidate who has spent much of his two years in office critical of the Dunleavy administration. His inflexible and hardline position could also mean a Kurka voter—even if they’re a fraction of the overall vote—might not be the most willing to rank anyone in second place.

The waiting is the hardest part

Finally, the other thing to keep in mind with this election is that it’ll take some time to know the outcome of the special election.

With the ranked-choice special general election votes not set to be tabulated until the end of the month, I’ll be interested in watching just how the campaigns—particularly the extra-Trumpy Palin campaign—handle the wait. Palin has already laid the groundwork for distrusting the ranked choice system and the two-week wait—while expected—is a void that can readily be filled with bad-faith actors’ claims of election fraud and other nefarious claims.

As much as some things change, other stuff (Republicans sowing doubt and uncertainty into our democratic systems) stays the same.

Stay tuned.

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