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Debate over ranked-choice voting heats up after Alaska primary

Sarah Palin, a Republican seeking the sole U.S. House seat in Alaska, speaks during a forum for candidates, Thursday, May 12, 2022, in Anchorage, Alaska. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File)
Sarah Palin, a Republican seeking the sole U.S. House seat in Alaska, speaks during a forum for candidates, Thursday, May 12, 2022, in Anchorage, Alaska. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File)
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A heated debate among politicians surrounding ranked-choice voting has ignited since Alaska’s primary election.

Some lawmakers say the electoral system “gives all Americans a voice” and is “sensible” to weed out extreme candidates, while others call it a “scam” that “disenfranchises voters.”

The process isn’t all that common federally in the United States; as of June 2022, just two states (Alaska and Maine) implemented it for federal or state-level elections. Hawaii adopted the system but hasn’t yet implemented it in federal special elections or special elections to fill county council vacancies. Twelve more states have either already implemented ranked choice voting on the local level or plan to do so.

Under the ranked-choice voting system, voters rank candidates by their preference on the ballot. If a candidate wins an outright majority of first-preference votes (51% or more) they win the election. If that’s not the case and there’s no majority, the candidate in last place with the fewest number of first-preference votes is booted from the race.

All the eliminated candidates’ first-preference votes are removed, which lifts the second-preference choices on the ballot. Officials then conduct new tallies until two candidates are left to determine the one who wins an outright majority of votes cast. According to Ballotpedia, some also refer to ranked-choice voting as “instant runoff voting” or “single transferable voting.”

“Ranked choice voting gives voters more choice, leads to results that better reflect the will of the majority, reduces the returns to negative campaigning and promotes collaborative approaches and people,” the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting said following Maine’s approval of the 2016 ballot measure.

But not everyone is on board with the idea, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who was rejected by voters using the ranked-choice system last month. She called it a “mistake” that was originally “sold as the way to make elections better reflect the will of the people,” but now “the exact opposite is true.”

“The people of Alaska do not want the destructive Democrat agenda to ruin our land and our lives, but that’s what resulted from someone’s experiment with this new crazy, convoluted, confusing ranked-choice voting system,” Palin said in a statement. “It’s effectively disenfranchised 60% of Alaska voters.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, with 99% of the ranked-choice votes counted, Palin’s Democratic opponent vying for the seat of late GOP Rep. Don Young, Mary Peltola, beat Palin 51.5% to 48.5%, according to NBC. Palin also ran against Republican Nick Begich for the seat, and independent Chris Bye. All four candidates will still be on the November ballot because the top four vote-getters are permitted in Alaska’s system. First choice results had Peltola with 39.7% support, Palin with 30.9% and Begich with 27.8%.

Peltola told MSNBC she’s “very optimistic about the ranked-choice voting system.”

Her victory was a surprise after Young held the seat for nearly 50 years. This would make her the first Democrat elected to the House from Alaska since 1970, and the second Democrat elected to either chamber of Congress for Alaska in the last four decades. Peltola would be the first Alaskan-born candidate elected to Congress, as well.

Palin argues the only reason Peltola is on track to make history in the state is that Alaskans “split the Republican vote.”

She’s now calling on Begich to “swallow a little pride” and bow out of the race so Republicans can unite behind a single candidate. In response, Begich said he plans to travel around the state and tell voters they’re choosing between himself and Peltola.

“Ranked choice voting showed that Palin simply doesn’t have enough support from Alaskans to win an election and her performance in the special was embarrassing as a former governor and vice presidential candidate,” Begich said. “Pollsters have been telling us for months that Sarah Palin cannot win a statewide race because her unfavorable rating is so high. These same polls have consistently shown that Alaskans are looking for a less polarizing alternative.”

Some GOP lawmakers came to Palin’s defense after her loss, warning Democrats will hold the power in the U.S. if more states move toward ranked choice voting systems.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., tweeted, “Ranked choice voting is a scam to rig elections. 60% of Alaska voters voted for a Republican, but thanks to a convoluted process and ballot exhaustion — which disenfranchises voters — a Democrat ‘won.’”

Cotton was slammed by a handful of other lawmakers, including retiring Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who tweeted back, “Ranked choice voting gives all Americans a voice and not the extremes of a party. So you’d be outta luck. No wonder you don’t like it.”

Former chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, also responded to Cotton’s tweet, writing, “Wrong. Again, Tom. Would love to see your tweet if Palin had won. And exactly how does #RCV ‘rig elections,’ again? Typical BS claptrap and no facts. Defeat. It’s a real thing, Tom.”

Former Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, tweeted, “The problem for the Republican Party in Alaska wasn’t ranked choice voting; it was their candidates. Requiring a candidate to get more than 50% to be elected isn’t a scam; it’s sensible. Let’s get ranked choice voting everywhere.”

New York City had its first modern-day run with ranked choice voting last year in local elections (despite using it for some races in the 1930s and 1940s) after becoming the biggest U.S. city to adopt it with voters’ approval in 2019. A POLITICO analysis found the new process only changed the outcome of a handful of races, with three races out of the 63 where the candidate who won the most first-choice votes ended up losing the election.

Democratic Mayor Eric Adams was elected under this system, but raised concerns about it during his campaign, arguing it was unfair his rivals, Kathryn Garcia and Andrew Yang, formed an alliance so voters would rank each other. Proponents of the system at the time said Adams’ victory exemplified what ranked-choice voting is designed to do: elevate the candidates with the broadest level of support. He was the top choice of 30 to 40% of voters in four of the city’s five boroughs. Citywide, he had 31.8% first-choice support.

Supporters of ranked-choice voting point to certain candidates who are only liked by a small portion of voters, like former New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, who got 40% of the Democratic vote in 2013. They assert under the typical one-vote-for-one candidate system, voters don’t pick their favorites or good candidates because they fear that candidate doesn’t have a chance at being elected — i.e., lack of funding or name recognition.

But opponents make the case that ranked-choice voting is less democratic because it doesn’t align with the “one person, one vote” concept, and point out that candidates (like Adams’ rivals in New York City) can then try horse-trading. Opponents also bring up technicalities — the process is complicated, and a Maine policy analyst found voters make more errors on ranked choice ballots than regular ones. Another survey found most voters don’t actually fill out all the choices. In the New York race last year, just a quarter of potential voters picked five people, which critics could argue means the winners didn’t have the true majority if not everyone is required to rank every candidate. That concept references what Cotton called “ballot exhaustion” — when voters fail to rank enough candidates.

Experts are hesitant to draw conclusions from Peltola’s win, saying the idea of ranked-choice voting will become more clear in November when Alaskans are using the same method for dozens of state legislative campaigns and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s race for reelection.

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But, most Alaskans wanted to vote using this method, with 51% of residents supporting the change in 2020. It’s unclear if one party will lead the charge for wider adoption of ranked-choice voting, or which argument will win out.

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