OPINION: Anchorage should improve its elections with ranked choice voting

Anchorage recently completed another mayoral election. In looking at past elections, maybe it is time to consider a change to ranked choice voting (RCV) for municipal elections, as we have for statewide elections. Anchorage votes for mayor every three years. Since the year 2000, there have been nine mayoral elections. Five of these elections have been decided by a runoff. Usually, the race for mayor has been a crowded field, with an average of more than 10 candidates running for the top job. If no single candidate receives 45% of the vote, a runoff election is required. There has typically been a runoff election when there was no incumbent running, with the current election and 2003 being exceptions.

In 2003, Mark Begich ran against incumbent George Wuerch and won the election with 45.03% of the vote. Therefore, 55% of the voters preferred another candidate. When such a large majority prefers an alternative, it puts the election process in question. Additionally, 45% is an arbitrary number. Why not 44%, 40% or 39%? Majority rule means that no other candidate could garner more votes — majority rule is a central tenet of democracy.

The average cost of a vote-by-mail election has been just over $500,000, with poll-based (in-person) voting costing about $100,000 less; but the turnout with vote-by-mail appears to be about 15,000 more votes. Thus, the basic costs of vote-by-mail runoff elections over the past 20 years have been above $2.5 million.

It is instructive to remember that RCV is sometimes referred to as an “instant runoff.” When voters rank all their choices they reveal all the information that would be garnered in a run-off election. There is no need to have a runoff. The candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated from each voter’s ranking and their next choices percolate to the top of their ranking until a single candidate receives a majority of the votes. The election achieves the same result as a runoff, without the additional expense of a runoff.

However, the primary appeal and power of RCV is that it results in the election of the candidate who is preferred by a majority of the voters over every other single candidate in the election. The winning candidate is always elected by a majority of the voters, the way that it should be with a representative democracy. It eliminates what has been referred to as the “spoiler effect.” There have been any number of instances of this spoiler effect in national, state and local elections in which the presence of a third (or more) alternative(s), who have no real chance of winning, changed the outcome of the election over what it would have been had there only been two choices. Ross Perot was a third-party candidate in 1992, and most likely took more votes from George H. W. Bush than Bill Clinton, enabling the Democratic candidate’s victory. In 2000, Ralph Nader was a third-party candidate, pushing the election of George W. Bush over Al Gore. This is a nonpartisan issue — potentially impacting both political parties. Many observers are worried about the impact of a third party, either with Robert Kennedy Jr. or Jill Stein (or both) would have on the outcome of the 2024 presidential election.

A runoff election in no way guarantees that the winning candidate is preferred to all other candidates by a majority of the electorate. This is contrary to democratic ideals and norms. Consider the previous (2021) mayoral race. The top three vote-getters were Dave Bronson with 33%, Forrest Dunbar with 30.9%, Bill Falsey with 12.8% and the seven remaining candidates with a combined 23.3% of the vote. Hypothetically, assume that all the voters for the remaining seven candidates would have ranked Falsey as their second choice if RCV were the rule. Further assume that half of Dunbar’s voters would have ranked Falsey second. Under RCV, Dunbar would have been eliminated when it was down to the final three; Bronson would have had 33%, Dunbar 30.9%, and Falsey would have had 36.1%. Then Falsey would have received half of Dunbar’s votes for a total of 52%, so he would have been elected with RCV. If the race had been just between Falsey and Bronson (without anyone else in the race), Falsey would have won the one-on-one election in this scenario.

RCV guarantees that the eventual winner would best every other candidate in a one-on-one election. There is no spoiler effect. The above example is only hypothetical, given the assumptions listed. But it demonstrates that RCV would produce a true democratic result, with the winner being elected by a majority of the electorate.


In retrospect, there was most likely no spoiler effect in our most recent mayoral election, but it cannot be known for certain without knowing everyone’s second and lower rankings. The election is over and our new mayor is Suzanne LaFrance. Had none of the lower-ranked candidates thrown their hat into the ring we might have been saved the runoff, but there is no way of limiting the field and encouraging participation in the electoral process. Declaring a winner with less than a majority of the votes is certainly an undemocratic solution.

One of the interesting attributes of RCV is that any number of people could run for office without creating a spoiler effect. People could run for office and broach their ideas about the public sector to the voters — a real participatory democracy. Politics is a natural forum in the marketplace for public policy ideas.

As it stands now, unless a single candidate in the general election garners 45% of the vote for mayor there will be a runoff election between the two top vote winners. A runoff election is costly and is a completely unnecessary expense, given RCV. It must be remembered that a runoff between the top two candidates in no way guarantees that the winning candidate would win in a two-way race with any of the other candidates. Anything less than majority rule is arbitrary and not in the interest of a democracy, as that should be the goal.

P.J. Hill is a retired professor of economics who taught at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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