On Tuesday, for the first time, Alaska voters will use ranked-choice voting — and it’ll be for a special general election to fill the state’s only House seat following the death of Republican Rep. Don Young.
Three candidates advanced from a crowded special primary in June: Sarah Palin, the former Republican governor and 2008 vice-presidential nominee; Republican Nick Begich III, a businessman and former GOP aide; and Democratic state Rep. Mary Peltola.
The seat they are seeking to fill opened for the first time in almost 50 years in March, with Young’s death.
Voters in the state had approved a ballot initiative in 2020 in favor of using ranked-choice voting in their general elections. The initiative also created a nonpartisan primary which sends the top four vote-getters, regardless of political affiliation, to the general election. (The fourth candidate in June’s special primary, Al Gross, withdrew shortly thereafter.)
The ranked voting works like this: If a candidate in the general election wins more than 50% of first-choice votes, they win the race outright. Otherwise, the candidate with the least amount of first-place votes is eliminated and that candidate’s voters instead have their ballots redistributed to their second choice.
This process continues until a candidate exceeds 50%.
Alaskans for Better Elections, co-chaired by former state Attorney General Bruce Botelho, was responsible for the ballot measure authorizing the ranked-choice voting system.
Supporters hope that ranked-choice voting could lead to less polarizing elections. Botelho said he believes it will force a more “civil dialogue focused on issues” and see candidates pushed to “reach beyond their base,” since how voters rank the hopefuls could decide the winner of the election (as happened in New York City’s last mayoral race).
Chris Warshaw, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, said that a downside to ranked-choice voting is that it’s more complicated compared to plurality voting, which is more standard, in which the first-place candidate usually wins even if they don’t get a majority.
“Theoretically, things [that] are more complicated could both drive down turnout and exacerbate socioeconomic inequalities,” Warshaw said. “Empirically, we don’t know; there isn’t much evidence on [ranked-choice voting] because it’s such a new reform.”
The system has been implemented in some other cities and states, such as New York City, Maine and San Francisco.
Voters in Alaska may not know who won the special House election for a while, since on election night and for the 15 days after, the state will only report first-choice results.
If none of the three candidates reaches the 50% threshold, the state will apply the ranked choices, eliminating the last-place candidate and redistributing their ballots — and then report those results on or about Aug. 31.
Whoever emerges as the winner of the race will serve only the remainder of Young’s term, which will end in January.
A regularly scheduled election to decide who will serve a full two-year term starting in 2023 will be held in November; the regular election primary is also on Tuesday and includes all three of the top candidates for the special election alongside more than a dozen others.