Ranked-choice voting leads to unlikely Democratic victory in Alaska


(Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News via AP)

Republican Sarah Palin (center) and Democrat Mary Peltola (right) participate in a debate for Alaska’s open US House seat.

Patrick Kane, World News Editor

On Mar. 18, longtime Alaskan Rep. Don Young passed away at the age of 88. Young was the House Dean, meaning he was the longest-serving member of the chamber, at over 44 years. Young served for so long that he was the third elected representative Alaska has had since it gained statehood in 1959.  And, on Aug. 31, his vacated seat unexpectedly flipped blue, as Democratic former State Rep. Mary Peltola won the special election to fill Alaska’s lone seat, largely due to ranked-choice voting.

Peltola, who was sworn into office on Sept. 13, will be the first woman, as well as the first Native Alaskan, to represent Alaska in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the process, she defeated two staples of Republican politics: former Governor Sarah Palin, the original “conservative populist” who entered the political spotlight as the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 2008, and Nick Begich III, who comes from Alaska’s most notable political family.

While on the campaign trail, Peltola emphasized core Democratic values like education and environmentalism. However, a major factor in Peltola’s victory was Alaska’s adoption of the ranked-choice voting system.

Alaska is one of two states (along with Maine) to utilize this system for statewide elections. Simply put, the system operates by having voters rank each candidate numerically in the order of their preference. Assuming no candidate gets over 50%, the top few candidates (in Alaska, it is the top four, however independent candidate Al Gross withdrew from the race and endorsed Peltola) advances to a second round. At this point, all second-ranked votes are tallied and assigned to their respective candidates, with trailing candidates gradually being eliminated from contention. This process continues until a candidate goes above 50%. The idea behind ranked-choice voting is that the candidate with the most general consensus among the electors comes out on top rather than just a lucky plurality.

In the first round of votes counted on Aug. 16, Peltola led with 40% with Palin behind at 31%. Begich, with only 28.5%, was eliminated from contention. In the second round, Peltola was officially declared the winner with 51.5% of the vote after second-place rankings were tabulated. Palin, for her part, got 48.5%. 

The results of the election sparked minor controversy as Republicans, like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, pointed out that the Democratic candidate won despite Republican candidates originally receiving 60% of the vote.

Peltola will serve out the rest of Young’s original term but she will also be on the ballot for re-election to a full term this November. She will once again be running against Palin and Begich, who have both called for the other to drop out in order to consolidate Republican support. Despite Alaska’s longtime Republican lean, the race is considered to be a toss-up.

Colin Swearingen, professor of Political Science at John Carroll, provided his analysis of the special election. “The purpose of ranked-choice voting (RCV) is for the winner to be the candidate most palatable to a majority of voters… In some ways, RCV was a success in that more ideological candidates should struggle to win, as we saw with former governor Sarah Palin, who ended up losing in the final choice results by about 3%. However, had the other Republican, Nick Begich, moved on to the final head-to-head matchup, he would have defeated Paltola by about 5%.

“[In] regards to November’s general election, in which we’ll see the same candidates on the ballot, Begich can make a stronger argument that he should be the first choice among Republican voters. Now that the Democrats control the seat, getting the candidate who has the best chance to winespecially with relevant data such as this special electionshould be paramount for the GOP.

“Second, when looking at the results, Alaska’s system of RCV didn’t really provide the voters with the optimal outcome. Many of the Begich voters on the initial count did not provide a second choice. This means that while Paltola won, she was not necessarily the candidate most acceptable for a majority of the voters.”