Alaska has seen many wild political races, from Rep. Bryce Edgmon’s famous coin-flip victory to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s write-in win. But we’ve never seen anything quite like the chaos of this year’s special election to replace U.S. Rep. Don Young. Forty-eight candidates have become four — and now, with the unexplained exit of third-place candidate Al Gross, three.
Gross’ abrupt — and, as yet, unexplained — departure after qualifying for the special election ballot appeared for a moment to open the door for fifth-place finisher Tara Sweeney to advance to the final slate, but that door slammed shut when the Division of Elections ruled that, per state statute, it was too close to the election date to change the candidate lineup. On Friday, an emergency court hearing for a legal challenge to that opinion ended with Judge William Morse siding with the Division of Elections. And so, now that the Alaska Supreme Court has upheld Morse’s ruling, Alaskans’ first opportunity to rank candidates will feature a slate of only three instead of four.
How did this happen?
The possibility of a candidate dropping out after qualifying for the ranked-choice general election is addressed in the statutes established by Alaska’s ranked-choice voting ballot initiative in 2020. According to the letter of the law, “If a candidate nominated at the primary election ... withdraws ... after the primary election and 64 or more days before the general election, the vacancy shall be filled by the director by replacing the withdrawn candidate with the candidate who received the fifth most votes in the primary election.”
The problem, however, is the compressed nature of the special election. By the time Gross left the race, it was already closer to the special election in August than the 64-day deadline. So Division of Elections director Gail Fenumiai announced Wednesday that although there’s still time to drop Gross from the ballot, state election law doesn’t permit a candidate to be added in his place. Sweeney supporters challenged that decision, arguing that the special election is different than the general election due to compressed timelines. But ultimately, Judge Morse sided with the state, after state attorneys pointed to the fact that election law states that rules applying to general elections also apply to other elections “unless specifically provided otherwise,” and there is no specific provision offering different guidance for special elections.
Why is this bad?
The drawbacks of the Division of Elections’ interpretation of election law are easy to spot. One fewer candidate on the ballot means Alaska voters will have one fewer option to rank, and the slate of candidates will, necessarily, be less diverse and encompass a less-full spectrum of views. That means many Alaskans will have to pick a candidate or candidates who are less aligned with their own political views. And it’s easy to see how the 64-day deadline can look arbitrary — why not simply make an exception in a race that has already had more than its share of high drama, and will likely see more in days to come?
Judge Morse also acknowledged that the choices voters make about ranking candidates may well be altered based on the potential scenarios of a three-candidate field instead of a four-candidate one. Because the last-place candidate is eliminated after each round of ranked-choice tallies, voters may rank candidates strategically via a different calculus than they would have with four options. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario, for instance, where left-of-center support coalesces around Mary Peltola, leaving Nick Begich III in last place after the first round. Begich’s voters would very likely support Sarah Palin overwhelmingly as their second choice, which would almost certainly hand the election to Palin. Ironically, this would be the nightmare option for many — likely most — Peltola supporters, who would end up with a winner they like less despite their candidate coming in second.
Why is this good?
There is, however, an excellent underlying rationale for restricting candidate replacement between the primary and general election. Before ranked-choice voting, political parties had far more control over who made it to the ballot — including the power to replace candidates who withdrew after the primary.
In theory, this let the parties field candidates in circumstances like a health crisis or family emergency, guaranteeing the race wouldn’t fall to the opposing candidate by default. In practice, Democrats and Republicans abused this power frequently, signing up “placeholder” candidates for the primary who would step aside for the general election and let a party-picked candidate, whom voters had no say in selecting, occupy the ballot line instead. It was a bad system, and Alaska is better for having it gone.
Alaska should be wary of any backsliding toward that sort of collusion between candidates. Although Gross’ withdrawal from this special election does not bear the hallmarks of backdoor agreements to benefit other political hopefuls, it’s not hard to see how if the rules were bent in this case, it would embolden others to intentionally game the general election field. That kind of behavior would be a disservice to Alaskans who deserve to choose from a broad slate of candidates with policy views that provide good options no matter where voters fall on the political spectrum.
And, even with Gross’ departure, Alaskans aren’t as boxed-in with ranked-choice voting as they would have been under our old system. A three-candidate race prior to ranked-choice would have had conservative voters worried about splitting the vote between Palin and Begich, liberals second-guessing whether to stand behind Peltola or back a “lesser of two evils” choice between the two conservative candidates, and moderates on the fence between candidates who don’t mesh well with their own politics. Ranked-choice removes that uncertainty, even with three candidates instead of four, and allows Alaskans to vote their conscience.
It’s a shame that Gross’ ill-timed withdrawal will limit the special election field, but the Division of Elections is doing its job by holding to the letter of the law.