Politics

“What’s the Scam?”: Inside the Republican Fight to Win Back Alaska

It hasn’t been easy—and Sarah Palin is making it harder.

photo illustration of Nick Begich III and Sara Palin's faces on a red background with circles drawn around them
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News/TNS/AbacaPress.COM and Mario Tama/Getty Images

When Mary Peltola won last month’s special election for Alaska’s sole seat in the House of Representatives, she became the first Democrat to take the position in half a century.

Her supporters found a variety of reasons to explain how she’d pulled it off: Peltola is unusually kind and warm, they said. An Alaska Native, she speaks knowledgeably about the challenges faced by rural Indigenous communities. And, they pointed out, her pro-fish platform attracted a broad base of voters.

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Republicans had a different take on why a state that went for Trump by 10 points in 2020 would send a Democrat to Congress. They blamed the system.

The system, in this case, is ranked choice voting. Starting this year, for every statewide election in Alaska, candidates from all parties—or no party, even—must run in open primaries, all on the same ticket. The top four vote-getters then move on to a general election in which voters rank all four candidates in their order of preference. (They can also choose just one, two, or three candidates, if they wish.)

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It has made for an unusually exciting and unpredictable election season in the Last Frontier.

Peltola’s election was the first to use this system, which was established by a ballot measure that narrowly passed in 2020. It started with 48 candidates, including one Democratic Socialist named Santa Claus (his real name), and ended with Peltola beating two Republicans on the ballot—Sarah Palin, who was backed by Donald Trump, and Republican businessman Nick Begich, who has the endorsement of the Alaska GOP. Peltola is now serving out the remaining four months of the term of Republican Don Young, who was in Congress for 49 years and died in March.

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The win for a Democrat was big news, and Republicans across the country were shocked and incensed. Palin railed against ranked choice voting as a “crazy, convoluted, confusing” scheme—an “experiment” that “disenfranchised” the 60 percent of voters who had ranked either Palin or Begich first on their ballots.

But, for all their indignation, many Alaska Republicans had anticipated this exact outcome: With two Republicans on the ballot and only one Democrat, they had worried that the conservative vote would be split. Sure enough, liberals and center-left moderates joined behind Peltola’s candidacy, earning her a plurality of first-choice votes and enough second-choice votes to clinch the victory.

Mary Peltola, left, takes a selfie with fellow candidates Sarah Palin and Nick Begich.
Mary Peltola takes a selfie with her fellow candidates—Sarah Palin and Nick Begich—in June, in Anchorage, Alaska.  Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
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This wasn’t the result of a devious partisan scheme.

Ranked choice voting was actually built to prevent spoiler candidates and reflect ideological nuance, which is well established in Alaska. If a voter’s first-choice candidate comes in last place, that candidate is eliminated and the voter’s second-choice vote gets counted—which means a second- or third-place candidate can come from behind to win. If all Palin and Begich supporters had just ranked the other Republican as their second choice, one of the two would have won.

But they didn’t. Which is why Republican officials and a smattering of conservative influencers have made it their mission to ensure a different outcome for the next Alaska election. This November, voters will return to the polls to rank these same three candidates (plus a Libertarian Party addition) all over again, and the winner will serve a full two years in Congress.

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Republicans now have a little less than two months to convince right-leaning voters to participate in the system—even as it is being increasingly disparaged by many other members of their party. Even if you despise the other Republican, these advocates are pleading, to defeat the Democrat, you must “rank the red.” Will anyone listen?

May the Best Fish Win

On a gloomy Saturday morning in August, in an industrial-looking church right off the highway in Palmer, Alaska, a man in a polo shirt decorated with the Declaration of Independence told a few dozen people how to fill out ranked choice ballots.

“Here’s the bottom line: Vote. The. Red,” Mike Coons told the assembled crowd. As president of a chapter of the Association of Mature American Citizens, a right-leaning alternative to the AARP, Coons had tailored his presentation to his audience: older conservative Alaskans who remain suspicious of ranked choice voting. They had come to the Real Life Church in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, a fast-growing region that has become a driving force in right-wing Alaskan politics, to hear about the election process from people whose ideological bona fides they trusted.

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At the front of the church, Coons stood alongside an American flag, a tree-trunk cross adorned with a crown of thorns, and a teddy bear with a mop of flaxen hair dressed to look like Donald Trump. It was a few days after the special election, and the final results had yet to be announced.

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Coons asked the people in the pews if they’d voted that week, and everyone nodded. “How many of us would like to kick in the rear end the person who came up with this ranked choice system?” Coons asked. Every attendee raised a hand. Coons nodded. “People are angry about this, and they’re using it as a reason to vote only one candidate.”

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That’s the wrong play, he explained.

To elucidate why, he laid out an exquisitely Alaskan, fish-themed analogy: Say that halibut and king salmon are both Republicans, and pollock is a Democrat. Maybe you give your first-choice vote to halibut. “You really like halibut, but you could eat king salmon, too,” Coons said. “It might not taste as good, but … to make sure pollock doesn’t win, because I really don’t like pollock, I vote king salmon second.”

Bound by AMAC’s tax-exempt status, Coons said he could not endorse a specific candidate. But it wasn’t difficult to decode his metaphor.

“By golly, I’m a never-king-salmon,” he said, of his own voting preferences. “King salmon is a Johnny-come-lately that came into this race only after king crab left—died.” (Begich declared his candidacy for the House seat in 2021; Palin only entered the race after Young left—died.)

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And yet, in Coons’ view, king salmon would be the next best outcome. So, he’d ranked it second. They should, too, he said. Or, if they preferred salmon, they should put halibut in the No. 2 slot.

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“If all the people that voted for halibut, voted for halibut, period, end of conversation … pollock takes over, and we have a Democrat in the U.S. House representing Alaska for the first time in 50 years.” His voice rose with intensity. “Do we want to do that? No.”

One woman in the audience raised her hand and told the group that Democrats had been behind the ballot measure that established the new voting system. (In fact, many prominent Democrats opposed the measure.) “What’s the scam?” she said.

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Another attendee was leery of the instructions printed on the special-election ballot, which said voters could choose to rank only one candidate if they wished. She wondered if that might indicate a nefarious scheme by election officials to discourage people from strategically voting for multiple candidates. “Is that a ploy?”

As Coons considered his response, it was clear that he had to walk a thin line. How do you validate someone’s concerns about Democrats stealing elections via voting systems—concerns that you may share, and that are central grievances of your favored political party—while also building their trust in the system so that they make full use of it?

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“They had to be able to show the different options,” Coons said. “As a ploy? I would hope not.”

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“Of course it is,” another audience member called out.

Coons reassured the attendees that the ranked choice voting system could be repealed if Republicans took the state legislature in November. “Until that happens, this is, by law, what we have to deal with. So, what we do is, we use it to our advantage. We don’t like it. I had to hold my nose and fill in that second. I did not want to fill in that second!”

But even though, as he put it, “I believed in halibut and I still believe in halibut,” Coons put salmon second.

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The Elephant(s) in the Room

From an outsider’s perspective, “ranking the red” would seem like a no-brainer, especially because there is little daylight between the platforms of Palin and Begich. If a voter prefers one conservative Republican, you’d expect that they would rather have a different conservative Republican in office than a Democrat.

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But the recent special-election results tell a different story. Begich came in last place when first-choice votes were counted; then, according to the rules of the system, the ballots that had him first were redistributed to those voters’ second-choice candidates. Just half of them—those that dutifully “ranked the red”—went to Palin. Another 29 percent went to Peltola, and the 21 percent that didn’t rank any other candidate were tossed. Peltola won, 51.5 to 48.5 percent.

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Two little boys peeking out from behind a voting curtain while their parent votes in Alaska's special election for the state's one seat in the House of Representatives, in August.
Voting, as a family affair, in August, during Alaska’s special election for the state’s one House seat. TNS/ABACA via Reuters Connect
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What was going on with that rogue half of Begich voters who didn’t “rank the red”? For one thing, Alaska has an extraordinarily high proportion of independent voters, and there were a lot of intangibles at play in this race. Some Palin supporters don’t trust Begich because he is the scion of a well-known Alaska family of Democratic politicians. (Palin has called him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”—a conniving liberal sneaking his way into office under the Republican mantle.) And plenty of Begich supporters detest Palin for a number of reasons: She appears to chase celebrity and headlines; her record as governor belies her claims of fiscal conservatism; and she resigned midway through her gubernatorial term to seek her fortune in the Lower 48, raising doubts about her commitment to serve the interests of everyday Alaskans.

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Whatever the reasoning, the results of the special election showed that more than 1 in 4 Begich supporters appear to prefer sending Peltola to Congress over Palin. (Only around 6 percent of Palin voters ranked Peltola second.)

These are not necessarily the voters that Coons and his fellow advocates are trying to reach. The 21 percent of Begich voters and 35 percent of Palin voters who placed no candidate in the second slot—the so-called bullet voters, who only chose one single candidate—are the target.

Why those voters didn’t rank any other candidates is anyone’s guess. But based on my conversations with Alaska voters and the conservative leaders who are trying to reach them, there seem to be a few common reasons. One is the counterintuitive quality of filling in a bubble next to a candidate one dislikes—it just doesn’t feel right. People are used to choosing a favorite candidate, not assessing the full slate.

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There is also plenty of misinformation about the voting system floating around. Bernadette Wilson, the state director of the right-leaning Americans for Prosperity–Alaska, has spent the past several months trying to educate Alaskans about ranked choice voting. She’s done it via Facebook videos, live events, and a column for a local conservative blog in which she answers questions from readers.

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A common misconception Wilson has heard from voters is that ranking more than one candidate might somehow split one’s vote and dilute support for a first-choice candidate. That’s not true; second-choice votes are only counted if a ballot’s first-choice candidate is eliminated for having the fewest votes. But it remains a concern.

Wilson also regularly encounters a related fallacy: the idea that if a voter ranks the same candidate in every single slot, it will function like a super-vote by preventing other candidates from getting any support from that ballot.

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And then there’s the elephant currently looming over any discussion of voting practices in this country: the false claims made by Donald Trump and many of his supporters, including Palin, that the 2020 election was “rigged” and that Joe Biden is not the rightfully elected president of the United States. Republicans who are convinced that a more complex ballot could make it easier for Democrats to steal an election—or who are angry that the ranked choice system passed in the first place—may be tempted to semi-boycott the new system by voting for just one person.

In their appeals to voters, the two Republicans in the race have taken opposite approaches on ballot strategy. Palin has repeatedly told voters to rank her alone; Begich has asked them to put him first but “rank the red.”

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For Wilson, who campaigned against the ballot measure that created the system she is now trying to help conservatives use, it is frustrating to watch Palin swoop in at the last minute, gripe, and sow misinformation. “You can complain about ranked choice voting all you want, and you can go out with Donald Trump and say, ‘It’s rigged, and it’s this, and it’s that,’ ” she said. “Meanwhile, there’s a lot of people like myself sitting there saying, ‘Listen, we battled this a year ago. Where were you?’ ”

Spreading the Gospel of “Rank the Red”

It would be tough to conjure a better ambassador to the political right for ranked choice voting than Wilson. A former conservative talk-radio host and leader of numerous right-wing campaigns, she exudes a steely femininity and cool-under-pressure poise. As she led me through the Anchorage office of Americans for Prosperity on the day of the special election in August, Wilson trod over a bearskin rug in a pair of sparkly American flag pumps.

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“One of my team members shot that,” she said, pointing to the bear’s head.

Wilson never expected to spend so much of her time helping people use a voting system she had actively opposed. But don’t get it twisted: “I tell people all the time, it’s important to not misconstrue our efforts to educate people as necessarily an endorsement” of ranked choice voting, she said.

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In one of Wilson’s videos, she stands in front of a whiteboard wearing an approachable grin. Using stacks of neon Post-it notes, with each color standing in for a candidate, she plays out a mock election to show how ranked choice ballots are counted. (Though AFP’s political arm has endorsed Begich, Wilson doesn’t use any of the candidates’ names—instead of fish, she subs in colors.) Wilson demonstrates that if a ballot ranks only one candidate—the pink Post-it note—that ballot is discarded after the first round of counting if the pink Post-it comes in last place.

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Dive into the comments on one of Wilson’s other Facebook videos, and you’ll see the attitudes “rank the red” advocates are up against: “Disregard the ranking choices, all that it is only a manipulation of our votes, do not play their dirty game.” And: “Rank choice is designed for cheaters to cheat.” Also: “Best way to commit election fraud ever seen in the US.”

“The rigged election part, we get asked all the time,” said Jason Grenn. As the executive director of Alaskans for Better Elections, the organization that campaigned for the election-reform ballot measure, Grenn has traveled the state giving informational presentations on the system.

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He quickly realized that if he hoped to build confidence among conservative voters, some of whom have consumed a great deal of misinformation about the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, he’d have to bone up on the particulars of Alaska’s voting machines.

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Grenn frequently describes the whole process to skeptics, he said, and then gave me an abbreviated spiel: “Our machines aren’t connected to the internet, we use paper ballots, we use TSA-secured armored guards at the airports when we mail in our ballots to our central location.”

The day after the special election, at a coffee shop in Anchorage, Grenn was buzzing with boyish excitement from the first go-round of the system he’d worked to implement. I told him that I’d encountered a Republican voter at the polls who said she’d ranked Begich in every single slot for fear that if she left any bubbles blank, a left-leaning election worker might come in behind the scenes and fill in the rest of her ballot.

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Grenn was familiar with that particular concern. He walked me through how difficult it would be to commit that kind of fraud, much less do it on a large enough scale to make any measurable impact. “I can explain to you what happens and why that is impossible unless every one of these poll workers is in on the fix,” he said. “Yesterday, every one of the poll workers was over 75. Do you really think they’ve organized—like, my mom and your grandma—have all organized to fill in some bubbles?”

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A longtime Republican who became an independent in 2016, Grenn takes a studiously nonpartisan stance when he talks about the voting system. To reach voters who’d rather take their cues from someone who shares their ideological priors, Alaskans for Better Elections has also hired ambassadors from across the political spectrum. On the conservative side, that’s Sarah Erkmann Ward, a Republican communications consultant who has been spreading the “rank the red” gospel at events across the state.

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Erkmann Ward campaigned against the ranked choice system when it was on the 2020 ballot, so she was hesitant to accept Alaskans for Better Elections as a client. But after giving it some thought, she decided she could get behind a straightforward voter-education drive—especially because, as she now tells gatherings of Republicans, “It’s here, it’s the law, and we have to operate within this new system or we’re gonna lose.” (In Ward’s presentations, she models her choices as Sour Patch Kids—and blue always gets axed in the first round.)

Erkmann Ward expects her schedule to get even busier in the wake of Peltola’s win. “Ranking the red” becomes easier to swallow for conservatives, she said, when it’s described as “harm reduction, or just voting for the Republican because you don’t want the Democrat to win.” (As one instructional graphic posted to Facebook by a Republican women’s organization put it: “Don’t let your vote get stolen out of pride.”)

Is this messaging strong enough to change the trajectory of the November race? It’s still a gamble. After all, if every Begich bullet voter from the special election had decided to include a second-choice vote, Peltola could still have won.

Republicans must also accept that the group of Alaskans that casts ballots in November will look different than the one that turned out in August. In all likelihood, there will be a greater number of casual and low-information voters in the mix—people with more moderate politics, less experience with ranked choice voting, and weaker partisan ties.

It’s not exactly a population that favors a party-loyalty inducement. But as Begich and Palin continue to direct their most vicious barbs at each other—rather than Peltola—a message pleading for GOP unity is Alaska Republicans’ only hope.

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