Alaska’s first regular election with ranked-choice voting produces three comeback wins 

Alaska Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai goes through the RCV tabulation report for the U.S. House race during the Nov. 23, 2022 Gavel Alaska livestream of Alaska’s first regular election conducted under the new system.

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In total, a dozen races from this year’s election were decided by Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting system—two on the federal level and 10 from the Alaska Legislature—after no candidate finished with an outright majority of the first-place votes. Once all the write-in, fourth- and third-place candidates were eliminated and their votes redistributed according to voters’ rankings, all but three of the candidates who came into the tabulation holding the lead left as the winner. 

Most importantly, Republicans pulled off two key comebacks that would leave the 40-member House evenly split between bipartisan coalition-friendly legislators and everyone else—as long as the one with a 4-vote margin holds through a recount. That race would be South Anchorage’s House District 15 where Democrat Denny Wells fell four votes behind Republican Rep. Tom McKay once third-place Republican David Eibeck was eliminated. A state-funded recount is on the table there because the margin is well within the .5% required by state law. 

It’s a situation that leaves no clear answer for what organization might look like, potentially setting up yet another cycle where the House starts the session without a majority and unable to conduct any meaningful business. 

Both groups are likely to try to pick off members of the other group in the coming weeks leading up to the start of the 33rd legislative session on Jan. 17. 

Republicans will likely be eyeing House Speaker Louise Stutes, a moderate Kodiak Republican who is the last House Republican standing that caucused with the bipartisan coalition, and conservative independent Rep. Josiah Aullaqsruaq Patkotak. In 2020, Patkotak ultimately decided to side with a majority that would protect programs important to rural Alaska like local property taxes on oil infrastructure and the Power Cost Equalization program—programs that far-right Republicans have long eyed for deep cuts or elimination altogether in order to funnel the money elsewhere. 

The path for the bipartisan coalition to expand its numbers is less clear at this point. Republicans have weeded out many more moderate Republicans in recent years, leaving mostly party-line and extreme-right members who are less likely to make deals with Democrats and independents. But it’s those extreme-right legislators that will make legislating difficult, which includes people like Wasilla Republican Rep. David Eastman—who’s in the middle of a lawsuit challenging his eligibility to hold office over his membership in the Oath Keepers, an anti-government group whose leadership faces charges of seditious conspiracy for Jan. 6—and Eagle River Rep.-elect Jamie Allard, who’s best known for shouting at Anchorage Assembly meetings. 

Either way, the more either side can bolster its numbers beyond 21, the better. 

Legislating with 21-member majority has proven to be enormously challenging. The 21-member bipartisan coalition struggled mightily to get things done in the 32nd Legislature and Republican hopes of a 21-member majority after the 2016 election were dashed when Eastman refused to toe the line, effectively holding veto power over anything the rest of the majority hoped to get done.

The races

There’s a lot to unpack in exactly how some of the races broke down, but let’s look at where they started and where they landed. 

  • Coming into the night, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski held a narrow lead over far-right challenger Kelly Tshibaka with the expectation that a load of votes would come her way once fourth-place Republican Buzz Kelley and third-place Democrat Pat Chesbro were eliminated. That proved to be the case and Murkowski prevailed with 53.69% of the vote to Tshibaka’s 46.31%. 
  • U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola’s big lead heading into the night helped her to a second term after the Nick Begich vote ended up far more aligned behind second-place finisher Sarah Palin than it did during the special election. A vast majority of Begich’s votes went to Palin this time, but it wasn’t enough to make up the gap and the race finished 54.94-45.06. 

There were 10 races in the Legislature that were decided by RCV tabulation, but of those races several had a leader who was already knocking on the door of 50% + 1—like Fairbanks Reps.-elect Maxine Dibert and Frank Tomaszewski—or had a third-place finisher of the same party to push them over the edge. Instead, let’s look at the three comeback victories where the tabulation saw a change in the leader:

  • In South Anchorage’s House District 15, Republican Rep. Tom McKay got just enough of a boost from Republican Dave Eibeck’s voters to seize a 4-vote lead against Democratic challenger Denny Wells. This was the race that the hopes of an outright bipartisan coalition hinged on, but it looks like it wasn’t meant to be. This race will likely go to a recount and it’s possible other challenges could materialize, but it seems Republican voters got the message on Ranking the Red. McKay’s win would join the rich tradition of close races in the House with a finish of 50.03-49.97. 
  • That’s also the case in House District 11 where just enough of Republican Ross Bieling’s voters coalesced behind Republican Julie Coulombe to seize the lead over nonpartisan candidate Walter Featherly. The race there ends 50.76-49.24. 
  • The third and final comeback victory of the night goes to Democrat Cliff Groh, who got the boost from fellow Democrat Lyn Franks to beat Republican Rep. David Nelson. Nelson was the farthest from 50% of any of these comeback races, and it finishes with Groh taking 51.99% of the vote to Nelson’s 48.01%. 

The final slate of races I’ll highlight here didn’t have a change in the leader, but are substantial nonetheless. 

  • Moderate Republican Jesse Bjorkman picked up more second-place votes from third-place finisher Andy Cizek to avoid whatever slim shot that far-right Dunleavy-aligned Republican Tuckerman Babcock had at winning the Kenai’s Senate District D. Bjorkman, a teacher and member of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, finishes the race with 53.56% of the vote to Babcock’s 46.44%. For many, the prospect of not having to hear Babcock bloviate on the Senate floor is one of the biggest wins of the night. 
  • Move aside Uma Thurman, there’s a new epic story of revenge. Republican former Senate President Cathy Giessel—who was sent packing in the district’s last semi-closed partisan primary—is heading back to the Legislature after beating out Republican Sen. Roger Holland. Giessel’s victory isn’t all that surprising given she’s positioned as the centrist in the race—which, whew, is really saying something about the state of Alaska politics given she was one of the most conservative members back in the early 2010s—but it’s worth pointing out that Democrat Roselynn Cacy missed moving into second place in the race by just 14 votes after the write-ins were reallocated. After entering the night in what was essentially a three-way tie, Giessel finishes the race with 56.98% to Holland’s 43.02%. 
  • The race for the Wasilla open House District 28 was never close to a four-way tie, and it was never really all that critical for the political layout of the House given it was four Republicans, but it was still interesting to see how it played out. Jesse Sumner—who ran against Eastman with the support of Anchorage Republicans in 2020—came into the night with the lead and had nowhere to go but up as his fellow Republicans were eliminated. Steve Menard was the closest thing to a challenger, but Sumner picked up far more votes than Menard in every round to finish the night 61.82% to Menard’s 38.18%.

What’s next

All the results are still in the preliminary stage of things and there might be some last-minute movement in the races before the certification target date of November 29, but I wouldn’t bank on it. 

As we saw following the audit of the 2020 election results, it turns out that those Dominion voting machines are ridiculously accurate and matched the hand count with 99.99% accuracy. Of 361,400 ballots cast in 2020, just 24 came up differently. 

Anyways, that’s it for now! I’d expect some kind of rough announcement on a Senate Bipartisan Coalition in the next couple weeks, while we could be waiting on the House for a while especially given the lawsuit against Eastman, the recount in the Wells/McKay race, the potential lawsuit against Democratic Anchorage Rep.-elect Jennie Armstrong and a half-dozen other things that will catch us by surprise. 

Have an excellent Thanksgiving.

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1 Comment on "Alaska’s first regular election with ranked-choice voting produces three comeback wins "

  1. 
    As an incumbent, Lisa, had tons of money, democrat votes, and McConnell’s backing. The fact that a neophyte gave her such a credible fight speaks volumes.

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