Alaska’s first election with ranked-choice voting is in the books, and the sky has yet to fall. The ranked-preference system, though the subject of a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth beforehand — as well as some innovative education campaigns — seemed less intimidating in person, with poll workers explaining the process to any voters who had questions. In practice, Alaskans reporting to the polls were often as likely to have questions about why they were voting for the same office — and often the same candidate — twice on opposite sides of the same ballot.
Although returns aren’t yet final, the dust is already starting to settle, and there’s enough clarity to begin to see how ranked-choice voting could affect Alaska’s politics — and give at least a general sense of how November’s races are likely to shake out.
One ballot for all
The most striking difference from years past is the unified ballot under the RCV system, where voters can select from candidates of all parties and the top four candidates move on to November’s general election. With the exception of statewide races, U.S. House, U.S. Senate and governor, there were four or fewer candidates in every race except one — the sole unlucky Legislature candidate, for the record, appears to be Kieran C. Brown of the Constitution Party in Fairbanks’ House District 35. Remember that name in case you happen to someday be in the world’s hardest, most Alaska-focused game of Trivial Pursuit. That meant that the primary was less a time to celebrate wins and losses and more of a high-quality poll that gives all candidates valuable data about where the race stands three months from Election Day.
And the effect of all voters having the option to vote for whatever primary candidates they choose is already clear in some races. Most notably, Republican moderates like Sen. Gary Stevens, who faced stiff challenges in their last election cycle, were in far better shape. Instead of the primary being a purity test, the open primary of the RCV system empowers candidates to appeal to all their constituents, not just those of their own political party. Perhaps the best example of that shift was in Eagle River’s Senate seat, where Kelly Merrick looks to be in excellent shape to win the four-way, all-Republican race for the seat vacated by Sen. Lora Reinbold. Merrick was censured by the Republican Party in her district earlier this year for joining the bipartisan majority caucus in the House; in a closed primary, it’s a safe bet she would have been successfully targeted for elimination by the party. Instead, she captured more than 50% of the primary vote and needs only to maintain her percentage to win a first-ballot victory in November. It’s an example of the RCV system taking power formerly guarded jealously by the political parties and giving it to voters instead, and so far, it does appear to be a moderating influence on how vote totals stack up — and presumably a better predictor of November’s results.
A big hill to climb for Dunleavy’s challengers
It’s a less rosy picture, however, for those looking to unseat Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Former Gov. Bill Walker and Rep. Les Gara each earned percentages in the low 20s, and although it’s a safe bet that most voters for each will rank the other second in November instead of Dunleavy, those percentages don’t add up to 50% — and Dunleavy can attain greater than 50% if he’s the second-choice selection of voters who opted for candidates to his right in the primary. Adding the votes of those who supported Charlie Pierce, who will advance to November as the fourth candidate, as well as hard-luck fifth-place candidate Rep. Christopher Kurka, would bring Dunleavy’s total to 53%, giving him a real chance to win outright in the second round.
There’s no such thing as a sure thing, of course. But for Walker and Gara, both of whom have been hitting the campaign trail hard, the result is a wake-up call that they have serious ground to make up — and serious work to do turning out their respective voters. And with each needing to capture virtually all of the other candidate’s supporters’ second-choice votes to have any hope of winning, attacking each other would likely spell doom for both.
A clear path for Murkowski
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, herself a target of her party, can breathe a little easier after the primary, although the campaign will no doubt be expensive and bruising for the next few months. Murkowski cleared close to 44% — not enough for an outright win on the first ballot, but when added to the roughly 6% earned by Democrat Pat Chesbro, whose voters will almost certainly select Murkowski as their second pick, she reaches the magic 50% threshold. Even if a substantial number of Chesbro’s voters didn’t rank anyone else — known as “bullet” voting — Murkowski would still be the odds-on favorite to prevail, as challenger Kelly Tshibaka would need to pick up nearly all the support from minor candidates in the race to pass her. Tshibaka is barely within striking distance, so Murkowski can’t afford to be complacent, but by this point, she’s used to high election drama.
A guessing game for U.S. House
In the special election to fill Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat until January, Nick Begich III is all but certain to have lost, meaning that his votes — and any write-in votes — will be reapportioned to his voters’ second-choice picks. That means the next several days will be a guessing game as to how those picks will break down. Will most of Begich’s supporters pick Sarah Palin, the other Republican in the race? Or are they so opposed to Palin and her divisive brand of politics that they would rather throw their support to Peltola — or not rank anyone at all? It’s anyone’s guess, though Palin has to be considered likely to be the main beneficiary of Begich voters’ second-choice support. The real question will be whether an Alaska GOP mailer campaign urging voters to not rank Peltola will have an effect — and whether voters who chose not to rank Peltola will bother to rank anyone else at all.
The coming weeks will provide more answers about where the final vote totals land — as well as how the ranking turns out in the U.S. House race. November’s ballot, comparatively, should be simple — no combination of pick-one and RCV, just ranking for all candidates and a yes-or-no vote on ballot measures. It’s the first step for Alaska’s ranked-choice voting future, and each successive ballot will make the process more familiar for voters.
Importantly, the new election process also give voters power earlier in the process, at stages where political parties used to control the outcome — and, by extension, often the general-election matchups as well. In a state like Alaska, where nonpartisans and undeclared voters far outnumber those of any political party, it’s a system that’s already leading to general-election matchups that reflect the will of all Alaskans, not just party insiders.