OPINION: Alaska’s elections are broken — but not for the reasons people say

According to the majority of reliable polls, people are split nearly down the middle between supporters the state’s old voting system, known as first-past-the-post, or FPP, and our new system, ranked choice voting, aka RCV. Opponents of both systems call the other unfair or partisan, and there is an pending ballot initiative that would be a referendum on Alaska’s newly implemented RCV system, spearheaded by the losers of the last election cycle.

Regardless of public opinion, I am of the mind that RCV is more fair than FPP. FPP has many problems that come part and parcel with it being the most simplistic voting scheme — the spoiler effect being the most prominent — forcing our state and America as a whole into a two-party system. This is despite the fact that more than 40% of Americans don’t identify as either Republican or Democrat, and thus are forced to vote for a candidate they might not have otherwise.

As such, the RCV system can be considered more fair — you aren’t limited to only voting for the person you think will win, because you essentially have more than one vote to cast. In this way, you don’t have to vote for the most popular candidate, but instead vote your conscience, ranking the candidates from most- to least-preferrable. This can be seen from our latest election cycle, where Rep. Mary Peltola won under RCV despite the likelihood that she would have lost under a more traditional FPP system.

However, my love affair with RCV ends at the starting line with the primary. Alaska’s form of RCV begins with a so-called “jungle primary,” where all of the prospective candidates duke it out for the top four slots. Encouraged by the electoral shake-up, there were a record 48 candidates for former U.S. Rep. Don Young’s House seat.

My problem with the jungle primary is that it’s essentially FPP by a different name. Alaskans were given one vote to choose between dozens of candidates, and the spoiler effect remains strong in this aspect of our system. With seven Democrats, 13 Republicans, 15 independents and a motley collection of other parties, it was a rat race to scramble for votes, with the vast majority of candidates getting single-digit cuts. The winner of the primary, former Gov. Sarah Palin, came out with a less than 30% share.

With so many independents, the spoiler effect ruined their campaigns, insuring that none got a plurality of the vote — Al Gross was still closely associated with Democrats, and in fact dropped out to aid Peltola’s chances. The top four candidates combined only netted roughly 70% of the vote, which meant that 30% of voters were effectively disenfranchised. Under the current system, there is still incentive for “strategic voting,” and for nominees to drop out to increase the chances of their party winning. It completely nullifies the point and advantages of RCV.

My stance is this: why have a jungle primary in the first place? Why not have RCV the whole way through, with you being able to rank your preferred candidates out of that massive list, then go to the four-candidate general? Or scrap the general election in its entirety, and just have the candidate with the greatest number of votes in the ranked primary come out on top?


I am still in favor of RCV, and I think that our system is a major step forward for Alaska and democracy in America. But I think there are some steps that need to be taken to perfect our system to truly make it one that enfranchises voters.

Daniel Bitler is an Alaska-born undergraduate studying STEM in Chicago, with an interest in public policies and law.

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