Alaska’s First-Time Use of Ranked Choice Voting Demonstrates a Sound Option for Electoral Reform

Interview with Rob Richie, founding president and CEO of Fair Vote, conducted by Melinda Tuhus, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

In Alaska’s primary election Aug. 16, Democrat Mary Peltola emerged victorious. Petola defeated two Republicans in the state’s first foray into both ranked choice voting and an open primary, where all candidates compete together, not in separate Republican and Democratic party elections.

Peltola, who is the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress, will fill the remainder of Republican Don Young’s term in Congress, which ends in January 2023. Young died in office after serving almost 50 years as the state’s sole Congressional representative. The three candidates who ran in the primary — Peltola, and Republicans Nick Begich, and Sarah Palin, the state’s former governor and 2008 GOP Vice Presidential candidate — will run for a full two-year term for that seat this November, joined by a fourth independent candidate.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Rob Richie, the founding president and CEO of FairVote, established in 1992 to develop, win, and implement ranked choice voting, proportional voting, Electoral College reform, and automatic voter registration in states and cities across the country.  Here, he discusses the historic nature of this vote and what to expect next.

ROB RICHIE: Alaska, for the first time in its history, used ranked choice voting this month and what we saw was one of the highest turnouts it’s ever had for this kind of contest.

We saw voters adapt very quickly to the system. Of those who voted in the contest, fully 99.8 percent cast a valid ballot even though it was a ranked choice ballot for the first time.

And when the candidate who finished third was eliminated and his ballots were examined, 80 percent of those voters decided to rank someone second.

MELINDA TUHUS: How does positive or negative campaigning impact the process of ranked choice voting?

ROB RICHIE: I would say it’s the ranked choice system is the most popular new reform on the scene. It’s now in place in more than 50 cities and counties; it’s used for congressional and presidential elections in Maine and Alaska.

It was used in New York City and San Francisco and Minneapolis and so on, and what we’re learning is that the candidates who show they respect voters, that they are in a competitive field – they don’t get more than half the votes – so in a ranked choice system, you rank the candidates, you add up all the first choices. If someone wins more than half the vote as first choice in the first round, then it’s over. But if not, you don’t have a winner yet and the candidate who trails the field is in last place, gets eliminated, their ballots examined, added to the voters’ next choices, you sort of rinse and repeat until a candidate gets more than half the votes.

So it kind of deals with the classic problem that people may feel when there’s a third-party candidate – well, I like that candidate, but I don’t want to throw my vote away — or are they going to be a spoiler? It really addresses that.

But because there’s multiple candidates, you as a candidate have some incentive to find common ground with more voters. So, there’s an opponent and you would rather a voter ranks you first, but sometimes they’re not going to and then you have to find a reason to rank you second.

If you run a scorched earth campaign where no one else is worthy, you’re separating yourself off from everyone else. And that was definitely what Sarah Palin did. She herself did not rank candidates; she criticized the rules of the system in which she was running and even though 60 percent of voters did vote for a Republican, there was more than one Republican, and when the other Republican finished last, only half of those voters ranked Sarah Palin as the next choice, and almost a third of them ranked a Democrat ahead of Sarah Palin and then another chunk decided to skip the race entirely, so that was short of punishing her way of running in the election, but also rewarding what Mary Peltola, the successful Democrat, did.

She’s the first native Alaskan ever to be elected to Congress and she kind of ran a very inclusive campaign – she looked for connections, she talked about practical problems she’d try to address in Congress and I think she was just successful in building a majority coalition, even in a state that runs conservative.

MELINDA TUHUS: Rob Richie, I read that Nick Begich was a poster boy for how not to run a ranked choice voting campaign. Can you explain?

ROB RICHIE: He did say he ranked. He was asked in a debate and asked if he was going to rank and said he was going to rank Sarah Palin second. But he also ran a very hard-core negative campaign against Sarah Palin. Now, Sarah Palin has a lot of negatives in Alaska. Nationally, we associate her with her vice presidential bid with John McCain, but very soon after that, she lost that election and she resigned as governor. She left Alaska and went on Dancing with the Stars and did some things that some Alaskans kind of rolled their eyes at and they weren’t happy with some of the things she did as governor.

Her negatives are quite high – more than 60 percent of Alaskans have an unfavorable view of Sarah Palin. So Begich ran a campaign that kind of played up on the negatives, but in a sense was attacking a fellow Republican in a way that made it easier for his backer not to rank her second.

So if Republicans want to win this seat, the trick for them is to try to distinguish between themselves and yet also be civil enough and be connecting enough that more Republican votes stay with those two Republican candidates.

It’s not clear what will happen in November as far as which one finishes third, but one of them likely will – Peltola will likely get the most votes.

And then the question will be whether those votes stick with the Republicans or whether Peltola once again peels off some of those Republican votes, and when you run a highly negative campaign like Begich did, you’re just making it harder for them to stick together as a voting block.

We’re really pleased with how ranked choice voting worked. We’re really excited it’s on the ballot in nine cities and counties. It’s on the ballot in Nevada and it’s really something that’s moving around the country.

For more information, visit FairVote’s website at www.fairvote.org.

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