What to know ahead of the Alaska’s ranked-choice voting tabulation

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Save for a couple-to-several lawsuits, Alaska’s election season will finally come to an end on Wednesday when the Division of Elections conducts the ranked-choice voting tabulation stage of the election of the state’s first regular election held under the voter-approved changes. In this post, let’s break down what we might expect from the tabulation and the races where it’ll matter.

What to consider with RCV

As a reminder for how the process works, in races where no candidate has an outright majority of the votes the candidate with the fewest first-round votes will be eliminated and their votes will be reallocated according to the voters’ rankings. The process continues until a candidate hits a majority

The tabulation is scheduled for 4 p.m. Wednesday and will be live-streamed by Gavel Alaska on KTOO 360TV, which will be live here.

With this being the first regular election conducted under the new system, there’s a lot we don’t know about how this process will play out in practice. Will votes align closely behind similar candidates? How much crossover will there be between candidates of different political parties? How many voters will rank the entire ballot and how many will not rank beyond their first choice, exhausting their ballot?

The special election for the U.S. House taught us to expect a little bit of everything.

About half of Republican Nick Begich III’s votes went to Republican Sarah Palin, nearly 30% went to Democrat Mary Peltola and the remaining didn’t rank anyone. With Peltola’s lead heading into the tabulation, it was enough for Peltola to secure the win but before we apply this to every other race we should keep in mind the big Sarah Palin-shaped asterisk on that race. Palin has astronomically terrible approval numbers and the Republican party has been bitterly split between Begich and Palin, meaning the breakdown is likely on the extreme side of things.

That said, we also know among everywhere else with ranked-choice voting that it’s exceedingly rare for anyone other than the leader in the first round to ultimately win the race. For an upset victory, it takes a race where no candidate is near a majority—giving the trailing candidates a wider margin of error—and a fair bit of coordinated cooperation between the trailing candidates to maximize alignment.

In the race for the Alaska Legislature, there are several races where this could all come together to make for that rare upset.

The races in play

At the top of the ticket, we expect that the leaders heading into the day—Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Mary Peltola—will all secure a majority once the fourth- and third-place candidates are eliminated. Gov. Mike Dunleavy already has a majority.

With nearly 49% of the vote already going to Peltola, Palin has a measly 26% of the vote and nearly no margin for error when it comes to the ranking. She’d need nearly every single vote from Begich and Libertarian candidate Chris Bye to come her way for her to pull off a victory, an already unlikely outcome given the results of the special election.

Murkowski will head into the tabulation with a narrow lead but the expectation that she’ll receive a large portion of the 20% of the vote that went to Democrat Pat Chesbro. Far-right challenger Republican Kelly Tshibaka doesn’t have a similar pool of votes to count on with Republican Buzz Kelley—who suspended his campaign and endorsed Tshibaka—holding just 2.88% of the vote.

It’s the race for the Alaska Legislature where we’ll find the truly interesting races when it comes to the ranked-choice voting tabulation. In the Senate where Democrats have boosted their numbers and are in a strong place to form a bipartisan coalition with moderate Republicans, the races will go a long way to deciding the tone of the next two years. In the House, the races will go a long way to determining who controls the chamber for the next two years. As it stands, members of the bipartisan coalition have locked up 19 seats and could add as many as three more depending on how the RCV tabulation goes. Here’s the key races (a few other races that will be decided by RCV aren’t included here because either the leading candidate is right up against 50% or because the third-place candidate’s votes are likely to consolidate into the leading candidate’s vote total):

  • If we’re looking for all the elements needed for an upset victory, look no further than the race for Anchorage’s House District 18 where GOP Rep. David Nelson holds 44% of the vote with Democrats Cliff Groh and Lyn Franks accounting for a combined 55.6% of the vote. While Republican coordination has proven to be spotty—especially in races with moderate and far-right Republicans—Groh (35.32%) and Franks (20.26%) went into the election with a fair bit of messaging around the importance of ranking each other. That combined with Nelson’s distance to a majority and Groh is the odds-on favorite.
  • Anchorage Republican Rep. Tom McKay has got to be hoping that the “Rank the Red” messaging broke through in a significant way because he currently sits nearly eight points behind Democrat Denny Wells. Wells has 46.61% of the vote to the 38.82% of McKay and the 14.08% held by Republican Dave Eibeck. Even if tabulation is much more aligned than it was with Palin and Begich, Wells’ share of the first-place votes will be tough to overcome. McKay has very little margin of error here.
  • A few percentage points could make all the difference in the race for South Anchorage’s House District 11 where nonpartisan candidate Walter Featherly leads two Republicans. Featherly has 45.45% of the vote to the 38.67% held by Republican Julie Coulombe and the 15.36% held by Republican Ross Bieling This one is expected to be closer to a toss-up because of the smaller gap between Featherly and Coulombe, but I’d still give Featherly an edge.
  • It likely won’t matter for organization purposes because it’s a four-way race among Republicans, but the race for House District 28 ought to be really interesting. As it stands, Jesse Sumner—who ran against Rep. David Eastman in 2020, attracting the support of Anchorage Republicans—leads the race with about 37% of the vote. It’ll come down to the rankings, though with Steve Menard at 25.7%, Rachel Allen at 21.5% and Jessica Wright at 14.5%. Sumner is the favorite here, but it’s possible that enough votes could consolidate around Menard to make things interesting.
  • The race for South Anchorage’s Senate District E is the closest three-way race I’ve ever seen. Former Senate President Cathy Giessel holds 33.64% of the vote, Republican Sen. Roger Holland (who beat Giessel in the semi-closed 2020 primary) has 33.08% and Democrat Roselynn Cacy has 32.93%. There are still a handful of ballots left to be tabulated, so it’s possible that Cacy moves into second place before we get to the tabulation but either way it’s hard to see how Giessel—once a far-right conservative who’s now counted among the relatively moderate Republicans once Dunleavy took an ax to the state—wouldn’t be pushed over the top if either Cacy or Holland are eliminated. She only loses if she somehow falls into third before the tabulation occurs.
  • Speaking of the battle between moderate Republicans and far-right Dunleavy-aligned Republicans, there’s the race for Senate District D where moderate Republican Jesse Bjorkman holds nearly 46% of the vote to Dunleavy’s former chief of staff Tuckerman Babcock’s 41.6% of the vote. Just four points currently separate the two, but nonpartisan candidate Andy Cizek’s 12% of the vote is expected to break in favor of Bjorkman. The race is one of the more interesting examples of the new election system in action because it’d likely have been Babcock’s seat if the race had been determined in the semi-closed party primaries of the old system rather than the entire district through the new open primary.

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