Democrat's Special Election Victory is an Unorthodox Roll Out for Ranked Choice Voting
Mary Pelota gained enough Republican second-choice votes to prevail, but will Republicans see ranked-choice voting as a plot to elect Democrats?
[Sorry, republishing to correct a bad production error].
I wrote on August 16 that “weird stuff could happen in Alaska” and I was right.
The first use of ranked-choice voting in an Alaska at-large House race resulted in a Democrat winning for the first time since 1972. We also have a former governor and vice-presidential candidate losing a congressional race in her own home state. And now, since this was a special election to fill the seat until January, we will have a re-do of the same election, with the same candidates, a bit over two months from now.
The big “democracy” question is whether this result is good for ranked choice voting.
As I have written previously, in theory, when ranked choice voting is combined with open primaries, it could reduce the chances of extremist candidates from either ideological direction winning elections. But for this system to gain widespread acceptance, the public will need to feel that it does not favor one side over the other. I do fear that this unusual result in Alaska might feed a perception that ranked choice voting favors Democrats and that would not be good for the future of RCV.
But let’s dig deeper into what happened before leaping to conclusions.
Recall that three candidates were competing in the special election – two Republicans – Sarah Palin and Nick Begich III, and one Democrat – Mary Peltola.
I accurately predicted that Peltola would be in the lead when first choice votes were counted but that she would not cross the 50% threshold to get elected. On election night, Peltola had 38% of the vote, but by the time Alaska’s write-in and other ballots came in, she had 40%, which seems spot on since Biden received 42% of the vote in 2020.
Palin was beating Begich on election night and that lead held up – she won by about 5000 votes. So Begich was eliminated and his second -place votes were distributed to the two remaining candidates.
There were 188,000 total votes counted in round one; Peltola had about 76,000. So, to get to the 50% threshold, she needed about 18,000 of the 54,000 (1/3rd) votes cast for Begich. In America’s highly partisan climate, that would have seemed to have been a steep climb, but not impossible, for Peltola.
And indeed, 1/3rd was too steep – Peltola only received 15,000 of Begich’s votes, giving her 91,000 votes, a couple percentage points below 50% of the 188,000 first round ballots. HOWEVER, interestingly, 11,000 Begich voters did not enter a second choice at all. So, the total number of votes dropped to 177,000 and Peltola’s 91,000 represented 51.5% of the total. She was elected and will serve until January. Wild!
So, what do we make of this result? Did it express the true will of Alaska voters?
What if the 11,000 were confused and did not understand that their second-choice ballot would make the difference between a Republican and Democrat winning? If we assume they would have split the same way as the other second place Begich voters did (64-36 toward Palin), the Democrat still would have won, but by a much closer margin (1% instead of 3%).
Another possibility is that the 11,000 Begich voters disliked Palin so much that they were indifferent between her and a Democrat winning the seat. In which case, they did the right thing by not casting a second-choice ballot.
The final possibility is that these 11,000 Begich voters would never vote for a Democrat, but did not understand that casting a second-choice ballot for Palin would help another Republican get elected. In which case, maybe a higher percentage of the 11,000 would have voted for Palin than the predicted 64%, and Palin would have won a very narrow victory.
The interesting thing is we get to see what happens again in November. We can also watch to see how the candidates adjust their strategies.
The theory of ranked choice voting is that it incentivizes candidates to appeal to the political middle. Will RCV have this impact in the November re-do of this race?
If you are Peltola, one of your goals is to boost your base first-choice voters to get to the 42% level that Biden achieved in 2020. You also want to increase the percentage of Begich voters that rank you second (especially the 11,000 who did not rank a second choice at all). My guess is that there are ways to boost the base because of the excitement of sending a Democrat to Congress while still appealing to the middle on policy. Peltola needs to make explicit appeals to Begich voters to rank her second, so she needs to keep her policy stances moderate (which she did on guns and energy extraction in the first round).
If you are Palin, you need to bring out more of the MAGA base, grab a greater share of the Republican vote from Begich, and, at the same time, try to convince a higher share of Begich voters to put you down for the second choice. The best way to do this is to run negatively against the Democrats and argue that voting for Begich on the first round or leaving your ballot empty on the second round is a vote to keep Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House.
What about Begich? He must beat Palin in first-round votes. He isn’t going to get much help from Democrats since they are excited about Peltola. I think he too needs to make this race more, not less partisan. He needs to convince Republicans that a vote for Palin is a vote to keep Democrats in charge in Washington by pointing to the results of the special election. He also will probably have to go negative against Palin to survive the first round (which of course hurts him if he needs second round Palin voters).
What does this all mean?
This is a quirky election in a unique state politically, so maybe not much.
But it does show that open primaries and ranked choice voting can really shake things up. Since we know that closed primaries and first-past-the-post voting is giving us nothing but polarization, hyper-partisanship, and dysfunction, a shake-up is what our system needs.
I if RCV leads to the election of Democrat Mary Peltola and quasi-independent Senator Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republicans might turn against it. We need to have some examples where RCV disadvantages Democrats so RCV does not become part of our normal partisan warfare.
N.B. – One could argue that something like this happened in New York City where one of the most conservative candidates running, Eric Adams, won the mayor’s race with RCV over a slate of much more progressive candidates.
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