Alaska’s Special Election: A Good Omen for Ranked Choice Voting?

From the Editors | RCV Lessons for Maine and Nevada from The Last Frontier |Issue 18 | September 19, 2022

After covering California, Texas, and Georgia, The Purple Principle has broken the boundaries of the lower forty-eight for its latest exploration of political and social polarization. In this issue of the Purple Principle Report, we’re focusing on Alaska’s recent special election to determine who represents the state’s at-large congressional district, which was significant for many reasons:

  • Don Young previously held the seat for almost 50 years before his death this March
  • It was the first test of Alaska’s open primary and ranked-choice general election system
  • Almost 50 candidates, from Santa Claus to Sarah Palin, competed

The vote tabulation showed that Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich lost to Democrat Mary Peltola. Now that we have the results, we can ask some key questions:

  • Did Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) open the door to more moderate candidates or incentivize more positive, issue-based campaigning?
  • How does Maine, the first state to adopt RCV, compare?
  • What do Nevadans think about this special election as they look ahead to a vote on their own top-five ranked choice voting ballot initiative this November?

Alaska’s Ranked Choice System: More Moderate, Broadly Appealing Candidates?

Advocates for Top Four or Top Five open primaries plus RCV systems say it will open the door to more moderate candidates who appeal to a broader voter base and who may otherwise be eliminated early on in a closed primary process. Institute for Political Innovation founder and TPP guest Katherine Gehl and Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter discuss this in their 2020 book, The Politics Industry, where they argue in favor of Final-Five Voting:

“Five slots ensure a broader slate of candidates, allowing candidates typically eliminated upstream in party primaries to make their case to the general electorate… It’s not just first-place votes from partisans that count. Depending on the election, candidates will have to compete to be the second or third choice of a much broader set of voters.”

— Gehl & Porter, The Politics Industry

Did that happen in this special election? 

Alaska’s open primary allowed a large and diverse field of nearly four dozen candidates to campaign, and Peltola was one of the more moderate or centrist options available to voters. 

Anchorage Daily News reported that she was in hot water with Democrats after a pro-development comment concerning the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Republicans running to her right advocated increased natural resource development in the state, but the Bernie Sanders-aligned candidate Santa Claus vowed to siphon votes from Peltola’s left after her comments, forcing her to tweet a thread clarifying her position. 

Most of Independent candidate Al Gross’s voters decided to back Peltola when he dropped out of the race, another indication that Alaskans view her as a more moderate candidate than Begich or Palin (though it’s worth noting that many of Gross’ positions are left of center). And when bottom-tier candidate Begich was eliminated in round two of ranked choice tabulation, 15,000 of his voters (29%) crossed party lines to pick Peltola as their second choice, suggesting she appeals to a broad range of voters.

Image from The Washington Post

It’s important to also consider what role the national political landscape may have had in making Peltola’s Democratic Party label an advantage this election cycle. David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report identified five factors that are boosting Democratic candidates across the nation in 2022 special elections, which he ranks roughly in order of importance:

1. The Dobbs ruling helped Democrats match or even overtake the GOP base in enthusiasm.

2. Steadily falling gas prices are taking some bite out of Republicans’ “Biden-flation” message.

3. Republican primaries pulled candidates too far right or produced weak nominees.

4. The Mar-a-Lago search and January 6th hearings shifted media focus from President Biden to Donald Trump, hampering GOP efforts to make November a referendum on the incumbent.

5. Legislative breakthroughs — including the Inflation Reduction Act, CHIPS bill, and gun safety bill — restored wavering Democrats’ faith in Biden’s ability to pass an agenda.

Number three doesn’t apply in Alaska, and it’s hard to quantify the effects of the Trump investigations and Biden’s legislative achievements in the independent-minded frontier state.

That leaves Wasserman’s top two influential factors, reproductive rights and gas prices:

Alaska’s Ranked Choice System: Less Negative Campaigning?

Another benefit of RCV touted by Gehl and Porter, among other structural reform advocates, is the incentives it creates for candidates to run positive campaigns, a feature that is systematically explored by Dr. Martha Kropf in a 2020 study.

Martha Kropf, “Using Campaign Communications to Analyze Civility in Ranked Choice Voting Elections,” Politics and Governance 9 (2), 2021.

This innovative study analyzes a variety of campaign-related media, including tweets and newspaper coverage, to determine if RCV voting incentivizes more civil discourse among candidates. Kropf’s sample, which included several cities that had recently adopted RCV election rules, demonstrates that these city-wide campaigns tend to adopt more civil tones and rhetoric than those in plurality elections.

Despite the incentives for moderation in RCV elections, Republican candidates still favored negative campaigning during this special House race. Earlier this summer, GOP voters split their support between two Republicans who advanced to the special general election. Recognizing that one of them would be ranked third and be eliminated after the first round of RCV tabulation, both Begich and Palin began attacking one another to try and secure the number two slot:

  • Begich repeatedly criticized Palin’s decision to resign as Governor in 2009, 17 months before her term expired, to pursue opportunities in reality television 
  • Palin in turn characterized Begich as a “Democrat scion” and accused him of being a part of an “old boys’ network” in Alaska Republican politics

However, Alaska’s special election results show that this negative approach might have been a costly strategic mistake. Palin’s campaigning allowed her to successfully edge Begich out in round one and avoid elimination, but it also cost her quite a bit:

  • Despite a shared party affiliation, only half of Begich voters ranked Palin as their second choice 
  • 21% of Begich voters chose not to pick a second choice at all, representing a large chunk of potential second round votes that were lost
  • 29% of Begich voters ranked Peltola, notorious for her positive campaigning, above Palin
  • Peltola beat Palin by about 5,000 votes. To put that number in perspective, around 15,000 Begich voters preferred Peltola over Palin, while roughly 11,000 voters didn’t bother to rank either alternative candidate.

Polls leading up to the election showed that Palin was already unpopular with most Alaskans, but a softer tone toward Begich might have persuaded some of his single-voters that she was at least worthy of being their second choice.

These numbers strongly suggest Palin should campaign more positively during the regular election. Yet it appears she’s doubling down on her negative strategy rather than courting Begich’s voters.

Meanwhile, Begich pointed to Palin’s low approval rating with Alaskans after the special election and told his supporters that “a vote for Sarah Palin is in reality a vote for Mary Peltola.”

Which seems to suggest that RCV cannot, by itself, moderate those campaigns and candidates who are by nature immoderate. 

For one notable example, Palin appeared on Steve Bannon’s podcast The War Room on Tuesday, deriding Alaska’s ranked choice voting system, calling Begich a RINO (Republican in Name Only), and telling Bannon’s audience she “thumped the guy.” 
For one notable example, Palin appeared on Steve Bannon’s podcast The War Room on Tuesday, deriding Alaska’s ranked choice voting system, calling Begich a RINO (Republican in Name Only), and telling Bannon’s audience she “thumped the guy.” 

Comparing and Contrasting Maine’s Ranked Choice Voting System

Maine voters approved a ballot initiative on RCV in 2016, and the state used RCV for the first time in 2018. Unlike Alaska, however, the pine tree state does not have one large unified open primary in which candidates from all parties can run. Instead, Republicans and Democrats compete in their own ranked choice primaries for federal elections, and the independents who make up 36% of the state’s voters have historically been unable to participate in those primaries without changing their registration. 

This will change in 2024, as the recent passage of L.D. 231 will now allow independents to vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary. However, without a fully open, top-four primary like Alaska’s, independent or even more moderate candidates won’t have the same opportunities to gain voters’ attention. 

Furthermore, Maine candidates of the same party won’t be able to run against each other in the general election to replicate a dynamic like the recent Peltola-Palin-Begich race in Alaska. 

Even so, the current Maine RCV system does provide an incentive for candidates to appeal to a broader swath of the electorate: voters have been enthusiastic about using rankings in their primaries, and RCV caused a U.S. House upset victory in 2018 for Democrat Jared Golden who was able to siphon more second choice votes from independents than Republican Bruce Poliquin. 

Which raises one significant question: the first two cases of RCV have benefited Democrats in Maine and now Alaska. If there is not an election benefiting a Republican in the near future, moderate or otherwise, will large segments of the GOP turn against RCV with or without open primaries? 

Jared Golden after his 2018 RCV victory, image from Bangor Daily News

What Are Nevadans Thinking of RCV as The Ballot Vote Nears?

Nevada’s vote on a ballot initiative to implement top-five RCV is fast approaching, but it’s still tough to tell how voters feel about the new system. 

An August poll by the Nevada Independent and OH Predictive Insights showed that 15% more Nevadans support the measure than oppose it, but a whopping 32% still did not know how they felt about RCV. Nevada’s large proportion of registered nonpartisan voters (30% as of July, not including Libertarians and other small parties) would suggest the state has a swath of voters who stand to benefit. 

But, as the Nevada Independent points out, Nevada’s Department of Motor Vehicles automatically registers people to vote and updates their voter records when they conduct a DMV transaction. If voters fail to select a party affiliation when this occurs, they are automatically registered as nonpartisan. So that 30% nonpartisan number may not actually be as robust as it appears. 

Nevada also has tight races this fall for Governor and U.S. Senate, where some fear third party “spoilers” could tip the scales, and Nevada Democrats and others have mounted campaigns against ranked choice. All of these factors could sour voters on RCV as the November vote draws closer and tensions rise. 

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