September 30, 2022

After Beltola won in Alaska, the debate over ranked choice voting erupted

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ANCHORAGE — Democrat Mary Beltola Made history This week the first Alaska Native woman was elected to her state’s lone seat in the U.S. House.

He also became the first person to win an election under Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting system — a new process in which voters rank candidates by preference. The practice has drawn sharp criticism from some conservatives in the wake of Beltola’s special election victory over former Republican Gov. Sarah Palin, while conservatives have praised it for rewarding less polarizing candidates and more positive campaigns.

One of the most vocal critics has been Palin. On Thursday, he issued a statement saying this week’s ranked-choice results were “not the will of the people” and called on the other finalist in the recently concluded special election, Republican Nick Begich III, to end his campaign ahead of the November general election. Candidates will come back for a period of two years. Palin called on the government to provide more information about rejected ballots.

Begich released his own statement Wednesday, portraying Beltola as out of touch with most Alaskans and unelectable under Paul’s new system. In November, he said, the poll results made it clear that “a vote for Sarah Palin was really a vote for Mary Beltola.”

How second-choice votes propelled a Democrat to victory in Alaska

Alaska’s special election is one of the most high-profile tests of ranked-choice voting since it was used in New York City’s mayoral race last year and in Maine before that. A constitutional amendment to adopt a new voting system similar to Alaska’s is on the Nevada ballot in November.

Experts cautioned against drawing big conclusions from Beltola’s victory, saying the effects of Alaska’s new system will only become clear once more races are run and decided. That will happen in November, when Alaskans will line up candidates in dozens of state legislative campaigns, including the Republican Senate. Lisa Murkowski’s re-election race and congressional race again with Palin, Beltola, Begich and a fourth finalist.

“When it’s completely unpredictable, everybody rushes to make decisions about who will benefit from this,” said Jack Sandusi, a professor of politics at Drexel University who has studied ranked-choice voting. “People actually tend to see what they want to see in these results.”

Alaska’s new system of selecting candidates begins with a nonpartisan primary, in which the top four finishers advance to the general election and voters choose only one. But in a general election, voters rank their preferences on the ballot. If no candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, the lowest-performing candidate is eliminated and their reserve votes are reallocated among the remaining contenders. The process continues until there is a winner.

Beltola was leading after the first-choice votes were counted in the special election. Palin finished second, but didn’t overtake Beltola even after factoring in the backup choices of third-place finisher Begich. (A fourth finalist ended his campaign before the election, leaving only three on the ballot.)

Half of Begich’s first-choice voters came second to Palin. But nearly 30 percent chose Beltola as the second choice.

Begich’s 11,222 exhausted votes were more than double Beltola’s final margin over Palin.

Graphic: How ranked-choice voting will change the way democracy works


Note: 47 votes were not counted in the final round

Because the same rank was assigned to many others

than a candidate.

Note: 47 votes were not counted in the final round as the same rank was allotted to many others

than a candidate.

Palin continued to criticize the system throughout her campaign, calling ranked-choice voting unreliable, “cuckoo” and “leftist” in various statements and social media posts.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) sounded similar notes on Twitter. to say Wednesday called the organization a “fraud to rig the election.”

“60% of Alaska voters voted Republican, but thanks to a convoluted process and ballot rigging — which disenfranchises voters — a Democrat ‘won,’ He wrote.

But other observers argued that the result said less about the ranked-choice voting system and more about the contestants.

“The problem for Republicans in Alaska isn’t ranked-choice voting; it’s their candidates. Requiring a candidate to get more than 50% to get elected isn’t a scam; it’s sensible. Let’s get ranked-choice voting everywhere. wrote Former Michigan Congressman Justin Amash, a one-time Republican, on Twitter.

Beltola, in an interview with The Washington Post, attributed his victory not to Alaska’s new election system, but to his message that he would work across party lines. “I think it also shows that Alaskans are very tired of fighting and personal attacks,” he said.

Experts said the share of Begich supporters who switched to Palin partly reflects polls showing her high negative ratings among Alaska voters. Although a GOP campaign urged Republicans to “rank red” and mark their votes for both Palin and Begich, some observers said the two candidates’ repeated attacks on each other may have made their staunchest supporters less likely to choose the other candidate as second.

“Republicans who voted for Nick decided not to go too far and handed the election to Beltola,” said Sarah Erkman Ward, an Anchorage GOP political consultant hired to educate conservatives about the new system. “This should be a wake-up call to Republican voters to rethink their strategy.”

Ranked-choice boosters said they’re looking forward to Alaska’s November election, when voters and candidates will get a second chance to use the new system — and some lessons from what happened in the special congressional race.

“They may make some very different choices,” said Rob Ritchie, president of the ranked-choice advocacy group FairVote. Republicans, he said, “have to decide how much they want this seat.”

Alaska voters approved the state’s new election system in a 2020 ballot initiative that passed by just 1 percent — less than 4,000 votes.

It had major financial backing from companies tied to Kathryn and James Murdoch, son of media titan Rupert Murdoch, and Houston-based billionaire investor John Arnold.

Other supporters and activists involved in the ballot measure campaign have ties to Murkowski, who topped a Trump-endorsed challenger in the August primary under the new nonpartisan system — and was re-elected in 2010 after losing the GOP primary. General election write-in campaign. But proponents of the system in Alaska say their vision is broader than a single election and aimed at reducing polarization in the state legislature.

In Election Day interviews, Alaska voters were split in a new way. Many conservatives said it was confusing and disappointing, and wanted to return to Alaska’s old partisan primaries and pluralistic voting system in general elections.

“Why should we change something that isn’t broken?” Chris Chandler, 23, an Anchorage credit union employee, said he found Ballin first and Begich second. “It’s another way for them to bring in another Democrat.”

But other voters urged patience. Dan Paulson, the public defender who topped Beltola, said Alaskans need time to adjust to the system.

“People find it when they walk in,” he said after voting in Anchorage. “I think it’s going to take experience and practice before we get it.”