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A Democrat, a moderate Republican and a far-right Republican walked into an election night and walked out poised to win their respective races in Alaska’s first regular election conducted under the new ranked choice voting system.
U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Gov. Mike Dunleavy came into the election the odds-on favorites to win, and the early results all put them in a strong spot to win once the RCV tabulation process takes place on Nov. 23, and possibly sooner depending on how the remaining ballots break.
Alaska’s newly implemented, voter-approved election system has done away with semi-closed partisan primaries in favor of open primaries and general elections with ranked-choice voting. The system works like an instant runoff system where the worst-performing candidate is eliminated if no one reaches an outright majority and those votes are redistributed according to voters’ rankings. The process repeats until a candidate reaches that 50% + 1 vote threshold or until we get down to two candidates, in which case the candidate with the plurality of the votes wins.
The big lesson with ranked choice voting, though, is that we shouldn’t expect voters to neatly realign behind similar candidates. In the special primary election for the U.S. House, the first RCV election for Alaska, we saw about half of Republican Nick Begich III’s votes go to fellow Republican Sarah Palin while a little more than a quarter voted for Peltola and the remaining voted for no one. That outcome is likely on the extreme end of things given Palin’s deep negatives, but it gives an idea about how voters approach votes like this.
Early signs of a red wave prove to be a mirage
As has typically been the case in recent years, the election’s initial results weren’t super representative of the direction things would trend as the night went on. And, as has typically been the case in recent years, a lot of us seemed to forget that and watched with grim horror as Republican Kelly Tshibaka opened the night with a commanding 47% share of the vote while U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski trailed by about 6.5 points—making a comeback with the second-place votes of the 9% of voters who ranked Democrat Pat Chesbro seem like a long shot. It looked similarly grim down the ticket for moderate Republicans and Democrats in state legislative races who opened the night majorly down, particularly in Anchorage.
But, as Alaska Beacon’s James Brooks noted early in the evening, later-arriving votes from by-mail absentee and early in-person voting have historically pulled the results to the left. As I understand it, only one of the night’s updates included those left-leaning ballots and they certainly leaned left. As things currently sit from today’s tally, Murkowski (42.79%) has closed the gap on Tshibaka (44.26%) to a realistically make-up-able gap once the ranked-choice voting tabulation takes place on Nov. 23.
We don’t have a super clear idea of just how many ballots are left to count, in large part because they can still continue to arrive, but estimates put it well north of 20,000 ballots (217,500 have already been counted, making for a low turnout of 36.15%).
The Division of Elections is expected to release updates in the afternoons here.
Amid continued GOP infighting, Peltola nears outright majority
It was a far less rocky night for U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, who opened with an expected lead over her challengers and has only improved her position in the later reports.
She currently sits at a strong 47.22% of the vote while Republican Sarah Palin (26.59%) is once again topping Republican Nick Begich (24.21%) for the second-place finish. Peltola is certainly within striking distance of that outright majority needed to win the race outright with the remaining ballots but even if she doesn’t and the race goes to RCV tabulation, she likely doesn’t have a lot to sweat.
Begich and Palin have continued their Three Stooges act from the primary election, bitterly fighting each other despite perfunctory appeals to “Rank the Red.” Polling had given Begich a slightly better chance than Palin against Peltola—he would have likely won the special election—but as it stands his third-place finish will once again see him eliminated before he cand get to a head-to-head.
Gov. Dunleavy holds an outright majority
Perhaps the most surprising result from the statewide races is that Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy currently holds an outright majority of the votes at 52.06% of the vote, putting him on the course to win before the tabulation process takes place. That’s a pretty significant improvement over his primary performance, which admittedly set up tough task for independent Bill Walker or Democrat Les Gara to make up through RCV voting (because, after all, voters don’t neatly align behind similar candidates).
Dunleavy’s vote total is likely to drop some as those late-arriving votes are counted, but he’ll still be hovering right around victory. If it goes to tabulation, it’s entirely possible that the second-place votes of Republican Charlie Pierce voters (4.55%) will push him over the edge before we get to the Gara/Walker question. As it stands, though, Gara is in second with 23.07% of the vote and Walker is in third with 20.09%.
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