Politics

How Ranked Choice Voting Is Scrambling Partisan Politics Up North

Alaska’s new voting system will likely help Lisa Murkowski. What will it do for Sarah Palin?

Sarah Palin sitting on a stage, shrugging.
U.S. House candidate former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas on Aug. 4. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

ANCHORAGE, Alaska—The polls were just beginning to open in Anchorage on Tuesday morning when Mary Peltola, a candidate in the special election for Alaska’s single House seat, received a text from one of her competitors.

Peltola, a Democrat who is running against two Republicans, had served in the state Legislature during part of Sarah Palin’s tenure as governor. The two women were pregnant at the same time, which led to an across-the-aisle bond.

That morning, Palin texted Peltola a courtesy weather report: cold and damp, with intermittent rain. She knew they both planned to spend the day greeting supporters and holding signs on street corners.

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“We both run a little bit on the chilly side, and so I was so thankful,” Peltola said. “It’s such an Alaskan thing to do, is let your friends know what gear they need for the day. So I knew I needed to wear my long johns, thanks to Sarah’s text.”

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Peltola and Palin are running alongside Republican Nick Begich, who has the endorsement of the state GOP. The three are battling for a newly open seat that was previously held by the same incumbent for nearly 50 years. Rep. Don Young, the longest-serving Republican in the history of Congress, died in March, triggering a multipart election to replace him. First, Alaskans will choose a representative to fill the seat for the remainder of the current congressional term—that’s what they’re voting on now. Then, in November, they will elect a legislator for the next full two-year term, which begins in January.

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The unexpected vacancy in Congress coincided with the debut of a new election system in Alaska. Established by a 2020 ballot measure and lauded by democracy-reform advocates, the system replaced partisan primaries with an open contest, in which candidates from all parties run on a single ballot. The top four vote-getters advance to a ranked choice general election. Forty-eight candidates—including Palin and a democratic socialist named Santa Claus—ran in the June special-election open primary to see who would finish out Young’s term, marking the official inauguration of the new voting system. On Tuesday, Alaskans tried their hands at the second part of the arrangement: ranked choice voting.

In what may go down as the most convoluted Election Day in Alaska history, voters were asked to select one candidate in each of the respective open primaries for the U.S. House and Senate (to decide who will be on the ballot in November), and rank all three candidates running in the special general election for the open House seat. (A fourth candidate who advanced from the special election primary to the special election itself, independent Al Gross, dropped out in June.)

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Ranked choice ballots must undergo multiple rounds of counting if no candidate wins an outright majority of first-choice votes. And because Alaska law allows ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted if they arrive up to 15 days later—a statute that accounts for the state’s size, remote communities inaccessible by car, and sizable number of overseas military voters—the special election results may not be finalized for weeks. As of Tuesday night, Peltola, Begich, and Palin had all additionally qualified for November’s general election for the full congressional term, with the final candidate yet to be determined.

At the Alaska Zoo, possibly the quaintest polling place in Anchorage, voters on Tuesday morning shared mixed feelings on the new system. “I think it sucks,” said Earl Carson, 70, a retired commercial banker. “Why don’t you just go with the candidate you like?”

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Carson doesn’t trust Begich, because the candidate comes from a prominent Alaska family of Democratic politicians (though he is running as a Republican and co-chaired Don Young’s 2020 reelection campaign). Peltola was out of the question, obviously, because she herself is a Democrat.

Unwilling to lend even tepid support to his two less-preferred congressional candidates, Carson ranked Palin in all three slots. “I wanted to make sure they didn’t have any confusion about who I was voting for,” he said.

Bernadette Wilson, the state director of Americans for Prosperity–Alaska, has made it her mission to teach voters how to work the new ranked choice system. Over the past few months, in videos posted to Facebook and a column for a local conservative blog, she has tried to patiently explain to voters like Carson that their second choice (and third, and fourth) will only be counted if and when their first-choice candidate is eliminated for getting the least number of votes in a given round of counting. “If you vote for the same candidate only once, or you vote for the same candidate all four times, your end result is the same,” she said.

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When voters are given the chance to rank an entire multiparty slate of candidates, the idiosyncrasies of voting behavior, which often defy ideological considerations, come into full view. For example: Carson came to the polls with a friend, Gina Schumaker, a 56-year-old home stager. On her ballot, Schumaker ranked Palin first, Peltola second, and Begich third. When asked why a Palin voter would support Peltola, a Democrat, over Begich, a Republican, Schumaker cited Begich’s deep familial roots in politics. “I feel like we need to get some new blood in there,” she said.

The open congressional seat is not the only one that voters have to consider. On the sidewalk at a busy Anchorage intersection on Tuesday afternoon, Vickie Clay, 65, joined a crowd that had gathered to wave campaign signs at passing cars. Clay was there to support Republican Kelly Tshibaka, the Senate candidate endorsed by both Donald Trump and the Alaska GOP against sitting Republican Lisa Murkowski. She told me she had watched all of Wilson’s videos and felt prepared to fill out her ballot. Even so, she decided to rank Begich in all available slots, knowing full well that it wouldn’t count more than a single first-choice vote. Clay worried that if she left any bubbles blank, a liberal election worker could fill them in after she turned in her ballot.

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Clay and her husband recently attended a Trump rally in Anchorage—they even spent $250 each to skip the line. But Clay is not voting for all the Alaska candidates the former president has endorsed. “I’m not even close to being interested in Palin,” Clay said. “She hasn’t lived in this state in forever. I mean, she’s East Coast, and it’s just a popularity—”

Clay was interrupted by a driver in a passing car, who leaned on her horn and yelled “LISAAAAA!” at the Tshibaka contingent. Clay screamed back: “NO!”

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Of Murkowski, Clay said, “her voting record’s worse than Liz Cheney’s.” (Cheney, the Republican congresswoman from Wyoming, lost her own primary in a landslide on Tuesday.)

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The overlapping elections have escalated tensions so much that some congressional candidates, like Peltola, are highlighting their own civility, hoping to attract voters who lament the negative tone of contemporary politics. (The Palin-texting anecdote is a perfect parable of bipartisanship.) At a party for Peltola supporters on Tuesday night, her campaign manager pointed me to a recent article extolling Peltola’s “niceness” as her secret weapon. It’s a strategic choice: The ranked choice voting system incentivizes candidates to play nice with voters from other parties in hopes of winning their second-choice slots.

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But on the Senate side, bent on taking down a longtime incumbent, Tshibaka is taking a more aggressive stance. “Lisa lies,” Tshibaka told me, upon her arrival at the intersection. In a buffalo plaid jacket and boots with octopus-print cuffs, next to a supporter in a purple top hat and snow-white mutton chops, Tshibaka said the new voting arrangement was set up to “deceive Alaskans and manipulate our election system” in favor of Murkowski.

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Without the new open primary, which spared Murkowski an intra-Republican contest she would have almost certainly lost, “her career would be over today,” Tshibaka said.

Across the eight-lane intersection, in front of a Midas auto-repair shop, a Murkowski contingent had gathered to wave their own signs. As their sound system blasted “Smack That,” the 2006 Akon single, a pickup truck bearing Sen. Lisa Murkowski herself, dressed in jeans and a colorful hooded pullover, pulled into the parking lot. Her sign-bearers screamed; she leaned out of the passenger-side window, pumped her fists, and cheered.

One Murkowski supporter on the corner, Kayla Green, 36, has supported the senator since high school and identifies as a “never-Trump Republican.” Green said this year’s elections provided “the first time I felt that I could truly vote for who I wanted.” The new system freed her from the constraints of a partisan primary and allowed her to register support for candidates across party lines in the general election.

In the House special election, for example, Green ranked Democrat Peltola first—“I do believe that we need a Native Alaskan in office”—and Republican Begich second.

As for Palin, Green said, “She didn’t get a vote. She doesn’t go here.”

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