Who Lost Alaska, Palin or Ranked Choice?
By: The Editorial Board (WSJ)
Alaska's next Member of Congress will be a Democrat, Mary Peltola. She beat two Republicans in a special election held Aug. 16 under the state's new ranked-choice voting system. Congratulations to Ms. Peltola, and no disrespect intended . . . but what in the heck? Alaska voted for President Trump in 2020 by 10 points. Is this now the true will of the electorate?
The second-place finisher was Sarah Palin, and part of the story seems to be that Republicans were polarized by her history. Yet parsing the results is tricky given how these ranked-choice elections operate. The ballot lets voters choose multiple names in order of preference. If no candidate wins a majority, the bottom contender is eliminated, and that person's voters are reassigned to their second choices (or third or fourth, as the process goes on).
In Alaska, the first-choice votes show the GOP divide: Ms. Peltola led with 40.2%. Ms. Palin held 31.3%. Another Republican, Nick Begich, took 28.5%. That meant Mr. Begich was eliminated and then his supporters were reshuffled. Where did they go? Half ranked Ms. Palin second. Slightly more than a quarter migrated to Ms. Peltola, perhaps including some of the Republicans who couldn’t stand Ms. Palin.
Another 20.9% of Mr. Begich’s supporters, or 11,222 people, made no second choice. Was this because they didn’t like Ms. Palin but also couldn’t vote for a Democrat? Was it a protest against ranked-choice voting? Did they not understand the ballot? Perhaps some of each. Hence the final outcome: Ms. Peltola with 51.5% to Ms. Palin’s 48.5%.
The state Division of Elections says it doesn’t have data on the second choices of the voters who picked Ms. Palin first. It isn’t sure whether such data will ever be collated and posted. The point is that ranked-choice voting encourages such strategic gamesmanship.
Imagine you’re an Alaska Democrat. The best scenario for your candidate, Ms. Peltola, might be a final showdown against Ms. Palin, meaning you want Mr. Begich to be eliminated. You might therefore conclude that the best use for your own ballot is to rank Ms. Palin first, ahead of the Democrat you actually want to win. Helping to knock out Mr. Begich early might improve Ms. Peltola’s overall odds.
At this point our head starts to hurt. Ranked-choice elections are sometimes referred to as instant-runoff voting. What was the problem with regular, old-fashioned runoffs? No election method is perfect, and choosing candidates in partisan primaries has produced its share of turkeys and loons. But there’s something clarifying about a head-to-head argument between two candidates with different visions. Whoever wins has a mandate that isn’t cobbled together from second or third rankings.
In any case, Alaskans will have to do this rigmarole again soon. Ms. Peltola was elected to fill the remaining term of the late Rep. Don Young. In November voters will be asked to re-rank these candidates, so Republicans now have another two months to figure out how not to elect a Democrat.