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It’s been a week and a half since Alaskans went to the polls, putting the state’s new ranked choice voting election system to the test with the special U.S. House race. The waiting period for results has opened the door for plenty of prognostication and algebraic attempts to predict how things will break down when the state finally tabulates the ranked choice votes in that race next week. Whether we end up with Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola or Republican Rep. Sarah Palin will rely entirely on how Alaskans—specifically the 28% who voted for GOP establishment-preferred candidate Nick Begich or the 1.53% who wrote in a candidate—ranked the remainder of their ballot.
While trying to guess the behavior of Alaska voters is a time-honored tradition here, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what it was like to be a voter approaching ranked choice voting. There’s been plenty of talk about whether voters fully understand the system and what happens in a litany of long-shot edge cases, but, if anything, I found the process of approaching RCV as a refreshing opportunity to think beyond the bounds of a traditional election.
So many races have boiled down to an Us vs. Them choice without a whole lot of room for nuance or even overlap on key issues. Where the choices were once obvious depending on your personal politics, we now have an opportunity to decide between candidates who share common goals and are encouraged to think about the differences without the fear that we’d be “throwing away” our vote. And even if the decisions ultimately prove clear, I still think the exercise of thinking through the slate of candidates to understand who you definitely support, who you sorta support and who you definitely and steadfastly oppose is useful. It gives us voters more agency in expressing our positions on the ballot and also reinforces the idea that politics isn’t an entirely zero-sum game. And, yes, backing the candidate with the best chance of winning in order to keep the least-desirable candidate far from elected office—a hallmark of the old system—is still a totally valid consideration in RCV.
The race for governor puts this strategy on center stage for many. Gov. Mike Dunleavy is out in front in the primary election with leading opponents, independent former Gov. Bill Walker and Democratic former Rep. Les Gara, almost evenly splitting the vote. In this race, the two certainly have differences but they have the shared goal of defeating Dunleavy. Success for them will greatly rely on just how coordinated their efforts are in boosting one another. A bitter fight for second place—a necessary fight if you want to stay alive in the race—opens the door for Dunleavy to walk right into a second term.
Just look at how the special U.S. House race is playing out. There, the GOP’s goal of keeping the seat in Republican hands could be fumbled away if the bitter fighting between Palin and Begich results in a significant chunk of Begich voters doing anything other than rank Palin with their later votes. Will Begich voters be committed to GOP control if it means having to hold their nose and vote for Palin? Or are they more committed to backing the party’s preferred candidate?
It’s ironic that it’s Palin, who spent much of the race embracing Trump’s election conspiracies and bashing RCV as some kind of nefarious system where victory is handed to the second-place finisher, whose entire chance of reaching Congress relies on the new election system working as intended. Remember, also, that the open top-four special primary is entirely a result of Ballot Measure 2—previously, parties were in control of who reached the ballot.
But it’s that same conspiracy Palin has embraced that could sour voters on utilizing the voting system to its fullest (and, if there’s any person a GOP establishment voter would refuse to vote for, it’s probably Sarah Palin). Every Begich voter who only ranked him, or who decided to rank Peltola before they ranked Palin, is effectively a vote for Peltola.
Finally, it’s been interesting to watch as voters on the left struggle with the reality that U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is clearly the only viable candidate in the race if your primary concern is keeping Kelly Tshibaka out of the U.S. Senate (which, let’s be clear, is a worthy goal). In the era of Biden, Murkowski has sounded a lot less like the independent maverick who stymied the some of the worst impulses of Trump and a lot more like, well, a Republican. She’s not exactly making it easy for progressive voters to support her when she comes out swinging against college debt forgiveness or the Democrats’ attempts to pass expansive protections for abortion (though she’s cool with codifying Roe v. Wade).
It’s a good reminder that all these moderate Republicans and the quote-unquote “moderate” Republicans who’ve been sent packing from the Legislature in recent years aren’t liberals just because they don’t like Trump and/or Dunleavy. But, then again, not liking Trump and/or Dunleavy can be a selling point on its own.
That certainly seems to be the case given the likelihood of a large crossover between Peltola voters and Murkowski voters on the primary ballot. One high-end estimate suggests that as many as two-thirds of Murkowski’s backers in the Senate primary could also be Peltola voters.