Under ranked-choice voting, Alaskans’ best option is to rank every candidate. In the past, if you were a liberal, you voted for liberal candidates. If you were conservative, you would only vote for a conservative candidate. You could simultaneously signal your party affiliation and support candidates that you agreed with. Under ranked-choice voting, you can still accomplish both goals, but it is necessary to think about how the rules have changed and what incentives they give both voters and candidates.
First, the new rules. Under ranked-choice voting, we first vote for one candidate in an open primary. You don’t need to be a member of any political party to vote for any candidate. The top four vote-getters in the primary move to the general, where voters can rank up to four of them, including registered write-in candidates. Candidates need to be the choice of more than 50% of all voters. If no candidate reaches that threshold, an “instant runoff” occurs where the last-place finisher is dropped and their votes are redistributed to their voters’ next highest preference.
To get insight into how this is likely to work, it is helpful to consider two extreme scenarios: 1) where all voters only “vote” for one candidate and 2) where all voters rank all of the candidates in the general election. In these scenarios, assume we have four candidates who advanced from the primary, and they are not exact clones. Maybe they vary in how they would vote in office, temperament, competence, likelihood of future reelection, height or any other characteristic we care about. After all, “everyone is special, just like everyone else.” Also, to make this interesting, lets assume no candidate wins more than 50% of the votes in the first round to win outright.
If people only rank their first choice, the fourth-place finisher is dropped, and their votes are redistributed. This works as an instant runoff. Something important happens in this runoff. The people voting in the election changes. All the voters for the fourth-place finisher are dropped, and no longer have a say in the outcome. If the fourth-place finisher is conservative, the median voter is now more liberal. If the fourth-place finisher is liberal, the median voter is now more conservative. Additionally, the total number of votes that any candidate needs to win shrinks. This reduces the incentive any candidate must try and appeal to their competitors’ voters. Instead, their best bet is to fire up their base and hope to outlast their competitors.
Now assume instead that everyone ranked every candidate. Now, if no one manages to win outright in the first round of the general election, the votes of the fourth-place finisher are redistributed -- and they are valuable! Three campaigns now need to gain more votes to reach the “more than 50%” threshold, and the only available votes are the people who supported the fourth-place finisher. Additionally, the winner still needs to reach the same number of votes to win, because the total number of votes doesn’t change. This means that firing up your base but alienating everyone else only hurts your chances of winning if you can’t win outright.
Successful politicians are good at winning elections.
Candidates are noticing the change in the rules and will be watching in the first ranked-choice voting general election. If ballot exhaustion is widespread and we’re closer to the first scenario, candidates will learn that they win by being extreme and energizing their base. If Alaskans rank their entire ballot, then candidates will learn that they can win by building coalitions and trying to capture second-choice votes. We have a chance to make our system more representative of our state and to encourage our leaders to work together to get things done for Alaska. Rank every candidate. Make this work.
Kevin Berry is an Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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