Test Driving Ranked Choice Voting

Part of our Season 3 series on state-level polarization and partisanship.

purple principle episode artwork with headshots of podcast guests matt buxton and doug goodman

After years of effort by many groups and individuals, Alaska is about to be the first state in the country to hold a ranked choice voting election for all representatives, state and federal. But can ranked choice voting moderate our severely polarized politics?

If the August special congressional election and the current campaign for a full term are any guide, the answer is, at best, a hearty, “Maybe.” 

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That’s according to special guest Matt Buxton, editor of the Alaskan political blog The Midnight Sun and co-host of the Hello Alaska! podcast. TPP Reporter and Associate Producer Dylan Nicholls interviewed Buxton just after that special election, and again more recently in the run up to the full election. Both races feature the same major candidates, including former Governor Sarah Palin and the winner of the special election, incumbent centrist Democrat Mary Peltola–now the first ever Alaskan Native in Congress. 

Our second guest, Nevadans for Election Reform founder Doug Goodman, is watching Alaska closely as his own state goes to the polls to vote on a 2022 RCV ballot measure. If passed, that  would set up open unified primaries in Nevada and a final five ranked choice voting general election. 

Will RCV come to pass in Nevada, as in Alaska? Are we on a path toward more moderate campaign rhetoric and strategy, at least in our most purple states? 

Tune in to find out.


Original music by Ryan Adair Rooney

Matt Buxton:

They were really kind of at each other’s throats heading into the special election. And, you know, I kind of expected them to maybe try to, you know, rework their messaging, try to be more cohesive. And it really hasn’t gone that way at all.

Robert Pease (Host):

Matt Buxton is the editor of the Alaskan political blog The Midnight Sun and co-host of the Hello Alaska! podcast. He’s describing the campaign vibe in Alaska as the Trump endorsed Sarah Palin and the Trump targeted Lisa Murkowski and other candidates grapple with the new Ranked Choice Voting system. Can ranked choice voting moderate our severely polarized politics? A lot of eyes on Alaska this election. And no state watching more closely than Nevada where open primaries plus ranked choice is in fact a 2022 ballot measure.

Doug Goodman:

A lot of times you’ll have a campaign that then picks up a grassroots following. And this has been reversed. We’ve had a grassroots effort going on that got picked up as a major campaign.

Robert Pease (Host):

Doug Goodman there is the Founder of Nevadans for Election Reform, the group that originated this effort. I’m Robert Pease, and on This Purple Principle we’re looking at major efforts to depolarize politics with Matt Buxton on the 2022 Alaska election and Doug Goodman on the 2022 Nevada ballot measure. Our guide on these state visits is our own Purple Principle Reporter, Associate Producer Dylan Nicholls with a quick explanation of ranked choice voting.

Dylan Nicholls (Reporter):

Yeah, Rob. RCV as it’s often called, has been used in dozens of mayoral elections nationwide and at the Academy Awards. But Maine was the first state to implement rank choice voting for a federal congressional election back in 2018. Now in this Alaska election there will be a congressional, senatorial, and a governor’s race all determined by ranked choice voting. And that’s where voters have a chance to indicate not just their first choice candidate, but their second, third and fourth choices as well.

Robert Pease (Host):

And so, Dylan, remind us what is the main advantage of being able to rank those candidates in that way over the way elections have been held in the US?

Dylan Nicholls (Reporter):

Yeah, well we have a great cartoon on ranked choice voting on our website, highly suggest our listeners check that out, it provides a full explanation. But basically, it does away with plurality voting where one candidate can win with just a small percentage of votes if the race is crowded enough. So with RCV, instead low ranking candidates are eliminated, uh, until one candidate finally receives a 50% threshold to win the election. So they have a mandate.

Robert Pease (Host):

And could that civilize campaign rhetoric in any way?

Dylan Nicholls (Reporter):

In theory, yes. But in practice maybe not so much. At least not so far in Alaska’s congressional race, which had a special election in August and is back in campaign mode for a full term election in November with the same three major candidates.

Robert Pease (Host):

And remind us who those candidates are?

[Archival, Sarah Palin at the Save America Rally]

Sarah Palin:

You are in the arena! And are you ready to take our country back? [cheers]

Dylan Nicholls (Reporter):

Well a certain former Governor named Sarah Palin, another GOP candidate Nick Begich who’s not a big Palin fan…

[Archival, Nick Begich at 2022 Candidates Forum]

Nick Begich:

I believe that the state of Alaska has tremendous potential. And with the proper representation, we can make an effective business case for the state down in Washington, D.C.

Dylan Nicholls (Reporter):

…and the centrist Democrat Mary Peltola, an Alaskan Native…

[Archival, Mary Peltola on Newsy Morning News]

Mary Peltola:

I’ve run a campaign, um, letting people know I’m pro jobs, pro family, pro fish, and pro choice.

Dylan Nicholls (Reporter):

Now with just a bit of cooperation, one of those two Republicans might have won that special election back in August. In other words, if they had earned more of the second choice votes of the other’s supporters. But as Matt told me back then, that’s not how it played out during the campaign or the voting.

Matt Buxton:

What’s really gonna be interesting moving forward is, when the tabulation happens in this race, we’ll see, you know, whether or not Begich voters ranked Palin, whether they ranked Peltola, whether they wrote somebody else in, or whether they just left it blank. And, from kind of my perspective, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people left it blank, because it’s been so nasty. I think that they’ve, you know, that they’ve really been messaging like “Don’t rank any Democrats,” but they kind of, haven’t been as sort of forceful with the “Hey, Republicans need to keep, stick together.”

Dylan Nicholls (Reporter):

And another complicating factor was Trump’s visit to Anchorage, and his effort there to cast doubt on the integrity of ranked choice voting.

[Archival, Donald Trump at July 2022 Anchorage Rally]

Donald Trump:

You have that ranked choice crap voting. If you’re in fifth place, you get a point. If you’re in third place, you get it. How many people? Alright, Sarah Palin won but we had a couple of people in second place, we’re gonna give them the victory. Right? You know? You gotta watch that, this is really horrible what’s going on with our elections.

Dylan Nicholls (Reporter):

So back in August I asked Matt whether Trump mocking RCV may have backfired on Trump’s candidate in the race, Sarah Palin.

Matt Buxton:

And I think, you know, again, this is so unique because, you know, I think if it was any, a generic Republican, it would be easier for a Begich voter to rank a generic Republican rather than a Sarah Palin Republican. So I think that’s a huge element of it. And that’s sort of the interesting thing too, is that, for all the decrying of the system, you know, it’s Palin that kind of stands to actually benefit from the ranked choice system. So, you know, her success is entirely based on whether or not the system works kind of as intended.

Robert Pease (Host):

And Dylan, what was the result of that special election in August?

Dylan Nicholls (Reporter):

It’s looking like Buxton was pretty much right. Some cooperation would’ve been really helpful for the GOP. Uh, the Republican Nick Begich, he came in a close third, and so we knew when we were talking that he’d be eliminated and his votes would be redistributed between the other two candidates. Sarah Palin needed about two thirds of those second choice votes from Begich voters, but she only ended up getting about half. Almost one third actually preferred Democrat Mary Peltola to Palin.

[Archival, NBC broadcast]

Anchor:

We’ve got some projected results in a special election for U.S. House Seat. The state’s former Governor, Sarah Palin, was in the runoff. But NBC News can project that Democrat Mary Peltola will win the seat…

[Archival, Mary Peltola interview with Anchorage Daily News after special election results]

Mary Peltola:

Very good news, I’m very happy. And I’m just extremely grateful to the Alaskan voters who put their faith in me. And, um… just need to take a breath, I think. [laughter]

Dylan Nicholls (Reporter):

So big crossing of party lines there. And another not so surprising statistic, almost one fifth of Begich voters chose not to rank anybody at all.

Robert Pease (Host):

Which kind of defeats the purpose of ranked choice voting. But now it’s Groundhog Day, even though we’re talking about election day. All three of these congressional candidates are competing again for the same seat in November, just three months later—has this changed anything about how they’re running their campaigns?

Dylan Nicholls (Reporter):

Not really! I sat down again with Matt Buxton more recently to discuss just that. And, pretty incredibly, from his reporting it does kind of seem like more of the same…

End Narration 1

Enter Matt Buxton Interview

Matt Buxton:

We talked about the, um, sort of the strategy that they took, which was to be really, you know, they were really kind of at each other’s throats heading into the special election. And, you know, I kind of expected them to maybe try to, you know, rework their messaging, try to be more cohesive. You know, there’s a refusal to learn. But it’s been interesting too. And, what’s interesting actually is, you know, we’re not really seeing a whole lot of changing strategy on the national level or really even the statewide level in those races, but we have seen a little bit of shifting tones on the local election level where conservative candidates are really opting not to run these kind of like bombastic, you know, conspiracy theory loving candidates in the way that they used to be. You know, I think a lot of these local elections in recent years have been kind of putting forward some of the most kind of scary people. And I think a lot of moderates looked at that, said “No thanks.” We have to understand, you know, a lot of these elections are decided by probably five to ten percent of people, that, centrist sort of people in the middle. Kind of where they go sort of helps decide these close races. And I think at least appearing to be not actively trying to burn the house down, I think is an effective sort of change in strategy. And so, you know, we’re seeing some sort of changes here and there.

Dylan Nicholls (Reporter):

In Mary Peltola, did the most moderate candidate win? And beyond that, is that a direct result of rank choice voting? Is it a direct result of this being a very unique vote split because of Sarah Palin’s likability issues with Alaskans? Or is it a little bit of both?

Matt Buxton:

I think it’s a little bit of all the above. I, I, I would say that Mary Petola is certainly the most moderate candidate in the race. You know, she is progressive on a lot of the issues that matter to progressives kind of broadly. But, you know, she’s, she’s supportive of resource development, is kind of understanding that drilling and mining pay the bills in Alaska. And I think that is a really good kind of understanding of sort of the complexity of Alaska, right? That we are a state that relies heavily on the environment is, is feeling, you know, the brunt of global climate change. You know, there’s coastal erosion, bigger storms, all this sort of stuff. But at the same time, I think she understands, you know, that can’t turn off the oil production at least quite yet.

Dylan Nicholls (Reporter):

Yeah. Well, we also spoke in August about how there was a real opportunity for competitive cooperation in the governor’s race between Democrat Les Gara’s campaign and Independent Bill Walker’s. Neither of them want to see Republican Mike Dunleavy stay in office. Has there been any strategic cooperation between those two campaigns? A difference between how they’re running these last few months since the special election from the congressional campaigns?

Matt Buxton:

I mean, to an extent though, but you know, I look at it and I’m not seeing enough to where it might matter, right? I think that, I think what we’re seeing in a lot of areas though is kind of a falling back to some of the fighting about who gets into that second place spot, right? It’s a race to finish in second, and with the hope that the votes will consolidate around you. And, and, I think that they’re still kind of running for second place. They’re running to beat the other one still. There was earlier in the campaign cycle, there was some more kind of direct pot shots at each other. Unless it really changes in the next three weeks it’s gonna be pretty tough for them to, to get together. And I think too, you know, the, the thing to keep in mind is that upset victories in ranked choice voting is extremely rare. Takes a lot of work to pull it off. And, the closer Dunleavy is to 50% in the first round, the harder and harder it gets to try to unseat him.

Dylan Nicholls (Reporter):

Since we last spoke, Alaskans have officially seen all of the ranked choice process in an Alaskan election now, including the tabulation portion, which occurred after two weeks of mail in ballots coming in, and then instant tabulation. Was there confusion when the results came out amongst Alaskans? Was there some doubt, lack of faith in the election as a result? I know that there are characters like Donald Trump who’s traveled to Anchorage, Sarah Palin, who has his endorsement, who were trying to cast doubt on the process. But how did Alaskans feel overall, having gone through their first ranked choice election?

Matt Buxton:

For all the talk about how the system was confusing or hard to understand or decode, the polling and just the election itself I think shows a lot of people really truly did understand the system. It wasn’t that, you know, complicated really. And, so I think there’s pretty broad buy-in with it so far. You know, and this is gonna be, so I think I talked to some people who are involved in advocating for the system recently. I think they’re very aware that there’s gonna be efforts to repeal it on the legislative level. But I think that there’s a, a belief that being able to hold up polling that says 80 to 90% thought it was easy is gonna make a big difference. You know, when legislators are looking at, especially because, you know, a lot of these legislators that will be in office will be there because of ranked choice voting in the open primaries. Right? You know, I think there’s several races too where we’ve seen, kind of more moderate Republicans run, and get past the primary system and head on to the general election with really good chances where they wouldn’t have been able to do it in the past if the Republican primary voters were playing that kind of traditional gatekeeping role. And I think when we talk about the system moving forward, I think really the, what’s gonna make it endure and last a long time is that, the outcome of it, right? Like if it works and if it gets, you know, maybe more representative representation, I think that is a good pathway for it to last and survive whatever attacks that are gonna be coming towards it.

End Matt Buxton Interview

Midroll Ad Break

Enter Narration 2

Robert Pease (Host):

We’ve been speaking with Midnight Sun editor Matt Buxton. He’s reporting that ranked choice voting may not have moderated campaign behavior all that much in the Alaska congressional or governor’s races. But it may have helped moderate candidates at the local level stay in the running this November.

Dylan Nicholls (Reporter):

And RCV could moderate the Alaska Senate race where the centrist Republican Lisa Murkowski faces the Trump endorsed challenger Kelly Tshibaka. Again Murkowski, the only sitting Senator running for re-election this year who voted to convict and remove President Trump from office post-January 6th.

Robert Pease (Host):

But Senator Murkowski has publicly stated she will rank Democrat Mary Peltola first on her ballot in the upcoming Alaska Congressional election. That should win her some independent and cross over votes. And the centrist Democrat Peltola said she’ll do the same for Murkowski in the Senate race. So Alaska is different. Less partisan. More indie-minded. And now Alaska votes differently, too.

Dylan Nicholls (Reporter):

And there’ll be a lot of interest in how this all plays out in November, including from the state of Nevada. Because Nevadans will vote on whether they want to adopt ranked choice voting similar to Alaska’s. And that’s in no small part due to the efforts of Doug Goodman, Founder of Nevadans for Election Reform. He’s been trying to get this issue on the ballot for almost a decade, and his grassroots campaign gained steam this year with outside funding. We talked about what lessons he’s taking from Alaska, the bipartisan opposition to this Nevada effort, and ranked choice’s chances of passing in the Silver State…

End Narration 2

Enter Doug Goodman Interview

Doug Goodman:

I’m not a political organizer by any stretch of the imagination. In 2018, I actually filed an initiative which would’ve eliminated taxpayer funded primaries and just gone to a general election using Ranked Choice. But I couldn’t raise the money for that. Just over the years, the interest in making elections fairer, of giving Nevadans, you know, choice, of making races competitive, has just gained traction on both sides, on all sides. And to be honest, I really don’t know what happened with Alaska. You know, and Katherine Gehl. Katherine Gehl, the woman of course behind that got Alaska going. She of course got very involved with the Nevada effort.

[TPP Archival, Katherine Gehl S2 E5]

Katherine Gehl:

Final Five Voting would help deliver a free market politics which, you know, delivers innovation, results, and accountability the way free markets do in well-functioning private industry. So, we have something that’s fundamentally very in tune with conservatives and also very in tune with values that progressives and Democrats espouse.

Doug Goodman:

How, and what prompted her to identify Nevada as the next likely place to be able to implement Final Five voting? I have to think that everything we’ve been doing, and all the people we’ve been engaging over the last nine years resonated. You know, the voter registration trends that we’ve been highlighting. And I know she was aware of those, I know she’s very aware of, of the trends happening in the state over several years. And for whatever reason, said, “Yep, Nevada’s gonna be it.” And then the coalition just started the formal team for what was Nevada Voters First, now is a Yes On 3 campaign came together last fall, early spring, and it became a very professional, full-fledged campaign. All the people that we’ve been working with on the ground over the years were brought in.

Dylan Nicholls (Reporter):

I do wanna turn back to Alaska, ‘cause you mentioned that. Fascinating election. What did the process there and the results indicate to you about how rank choice voting might fare in Nevada, just in implementation?

Doug Goodman:

Well of course we’ve been watching Alaska very closely just because of that. That, uh, if it worked in Alaska, of course, would be a positive for us. If it fell flat on its face in Alaska, it would hurt us. But no, the process worked just the way it was supposed to. What you saw with, you know, Sarah Palin, she told her voters don’t rank anybody second. Peltola actually had a large enough lead in first choice that the second choice votes she got were enough to give her a majority. So that’s the way the process is supposed to work. And so we’re looking forward to, you know, the general election here to see what the results are. And again, however it breaks out, if Begich actually ends up, you know, with, you know, enough first choice votes to where he’s carried over with Palin’s second choice votes, and different results, it’ll still be the reflection of the will of the voters who a majority of the voters want to represent them. Uh, polls that I have seen show potential for Mary Peltola to actually win in the first round. Which, again if she did it would just validate the whole process that she was the voter’s choice.

Dylan Nicholls (Reporter):

Turning back to Nevada quickly and your, the ballot question there and its chances, we talked a bit about this grassroots campaign that has now become this well funded campaign for ranked choice voting in Nevada, but still a climb, still difficult to get that passed even with the resources. Alaska was able to pass ranked choice voting in 2020, but it had 58% unaffiliated voters, so much larger independent population. Does Nevada have a large enough nonpartisan population to carry this over the goal line, do you think?

Doug Goodman:

When you look at the percentages, the voter share and the trends in voter share, and you look at how Nevadans vote, and when you look at the support that ranked choice voting and open primaries have, there’s definitely enough support to carry this over the threshold when you make the point of, you know, voters having more choice, not having to settle for the lesser two evils. This, this resonates. But the actual numbers, I mean, over 50% of 18 to 34 year olds, that’s the largest demographic group there is. Really, I mean, there are more millennials than there are baby boomers. When you throw in Gen-Z, I mean, large section and over 50% of them are not registered to a party. But even, even when you get into our most conservative areas, which are the rural counties, Nevada has 15 rural counties. The average of voter share of the combined non “D” or “R” is over 30%. But definitely, oh no, the numbers definitely show the, the support is there and those numbers keep growing. They, I mean, when I first started tracking the figures, a monthly change of a tenth of a percent would be phenomenal, would be, wow. I mean, we’re seeing monthly changes, you know, of a quarter percent, a half a percent, routinely. So, yeah the mood is there.

Dylan Nicholls (Reporter):

How does it feel to you on the ground working on this? How do you think Nevadans feel about this? Is there a lot more negative rhetoric about ranked choice voting as we approach the election that you’re having to combat?

Doug Goodman:

Uh, yeah, the, you hear the, “oh, it’s too confusing.” You know, “why change?” You know, the standard arguments like that. Yeah. I don’t think we ever went into this thinking this was gonna be a slam dunk. But the interesting thing is too, is that this last week, our TV Ad started running, our mailers started going out, and we’re actually getting a few more requests to, to explain what’s going on. Every presentation that we do, there are questions about the process, about some of the negative stuff people are hearing. And when we explain it, when we present the facts to people, “Oh, okay. Yeah. Now I get it.”

Dylan Nicholls (Reporter):

Yeah, we spoke to, uh, Shea Siegert back in 2020 when he was running the campaign for Alaskans for Better Elections for ranked choice voting in Alaska. He spoke to us a little bit about the opposition that that effort faced.

[TPP Archival, Shea Siegert S1 E19]

Shea Siegert:

The biggest obstacle and I think our biggest opposition is the fact, is the kind of radicals on either side and the special interests on either side who really are trying to hold onto their power over elections and candidates. What we’re seeing is politicians from either side jumping in to bipartisanly oppose this.

Doug Goodman:

Well, I think I have to agree with Shea. And Shea actually was involved in the initial efforts in the campaign here, after Alaska. And, uh, but no, the opposition, the public opposition is loss of power. That the power will return to the voters instead of the party, you know, insiders. So that is, you listen to their arguments and it’s like, it’s just all, “Oh, it’s too confusing.” So you’re telling people they’re too stupid to make choices. And it’s a power, it is a power grab, that what some of these official elected officials are going to do when they’re sitting in their living room, filling out their ballot, we don’t know. It’ll be interesting. Just from some of the talk we’ve heard that, because right now we’ve been told by electeds, “I really like this, but I can’t say anything publicly about it because I’ll get primaried,” or “my, I won’t get any bills heard in the legislature if I publicly support this.” And that’s because of the structure that we’re trying to change. And, well you know what, that’s what, the voters want that to happen. They want the power to come back to them.

End Doug Goodman Interview

Enter Final Narration

Robert Pease (Host):

That was Doug Goodman, founder of Nevadans for Election Reform, describing the stiff opposition to ranked choice voting from both major parties, but some strong enthusiasm from indie-minded voters.

Dylan Nicholls (Reporter):

Yeah, that’s an initiative we’ll have to watch closely; polls in the summer of 2022 have shown that opposition to ranked choice is growing as we near the election, so the 20% of voters who remain undecided will be a crucial factor.

Robert Pease (Host):

Many thanks to Doug Goodman, and to Midnight Sun editor and Hello Alaska! co-host Matt Buxton. You can find links to their work in the show notes to stay informed on the latest in Ranked Choice Voting’s spread across the nation. Thanks to Dylan for great reporting here on a voting system which could have a huge effect on our polarized national politics if efforts like that in Alaska and Nevada are replicated in even just a handful of states. We’ll be following all of that closely. But coming up next on The Purple Principle, we wrap up our extended series on these not so United States by reflecting on lessons learned in episode visits to Texas and California, and their red-blue rivalry, to once purple Massachusetts and still very purple Georgia and Alaska. We hope you’ll join us for that episode, and do want to thank all our listeners from all of us on the Purple Principle Team. The Purple Principle is a Fluent Knowledge Production. Original music by Ryan Adair Rooney.

Matt Buxton is editor of the Alaskan political blog The Midnight Sun and co-host of the politics podcast Hello Alaska! His writing has also been featured on the Anchorage Daily News, and he publishes The Midnight Sun Memo newsletter regularly on Substack. Find him on Twitter @mattbuxton.

Doug Goodman is the founder and Executive Director of Nevadans for Election Reform, and has been working to bring Ranked Choice Voting to Nevada for almost a decade. He’s collaborating with the Yes on 3 campaign to build support for Nevada Question 3, which would bring ranked choice to the silver state if adopted. 

“Ranked choice voting is a dagger in the heart of party control. No wonder the GOP wants it gone” The Midnight Sun, 8/30/22

“The empowering exercise of ranked choice voting” The Midnight Sun, 8/26/22

“Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system survives legal challenge” The Midnight Sun, 7/30/21

Goodman’s original 2018 Greater Choice Initiative

Text of Nevada State Question No. 3

Goodman’s Nevada Newsmakers interview on 7/5/22

“Better Voting Nevada Initiative: By Nevadans for Nevadans” The Nevada Independent, 12/17/21

FairVote’s Guide to Ranked Choice Voting

Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center

Full Results of Alaska’s August Special Congressional Election

“With Peltola’s Defeat of Palin, Alaska’s Ranked-Choice Voting Has a Moment” The New York Times, 9/1/22

Murkowski, Peltola cross party lines to endorse each other in tight Alaska races” The Washington Post, 10/24/22

“7 GOP Senators Voted To Convict Trump. Only 1 Faces Voters Next Year” NPR, 2/15/21

“Can Gara or Walker unseat Dunleavy in the race for Alaska governor? Analysts say both have a tough, but possible road to victory.” Alaska Public Media, 9/9/22