Politics

Alaska voters weigh a new system as first ranked choice election approaches

Sample ballot ranked choice voting US House race

As the Alaska’s first ranked choice election draws near, voters and political strategists are wondering about the advantages of ranking more than one candidate.

On Aug. 16, voters will fill out a ballot that lists Democrat Mary Peltola, Republican Sarah Palin and Republican Nick Begich, but rather than picking just one candidate, they can rank them in order of preference. But some voters are saying they can’t bring themselves to choose more than one of the candidates who hold such different views or have such different approaches to campaigning or governing.

“I refuse to vote for people I don’t agree with,” Leslie Ridle, a former commissioner of the state Department of Administration under Gov. Bill Walker, wrote on Twitter.

At the same time, political observers are pointing to the downstream effects of voting only for one candidate rather than ranking all candidates — what they call “short voting.” In the special U.S. House race, where two Republicans are facing one Democrat, short voting could result in the Democrat winning if the two Republicans split the conservative vote.

“Ranked choice voting allows voters to vote their conscience while ensuring their voice matters,” said Amanda Moser, the chief strategy officer for Alaskans for Better Elections. That’s the organization that advocated for Ballot Measure 2, which passed in 2020, implementing a voting reform that included ranked choice voting and open primaries. “You choose your top choice, but then you also have the opportunity to follow up with a second choice and a third choice, and you’re not just voting against the lesser of two evils.”

[Register to vote by Sunday to participate in Alaska’s first ranked choice election]

University of Alaska Anchorage economist Kevin Berry, who applies game theory to ranked choice voting, calls the new voting system “a non-cooperative game.”

“If people don’t follow the instructions, you can get weird outcomes,” he said. “My understanding of ranked choice voting working is that we’re supposed to get broadly representative candidates.”

Ranked choice voting translates to immediate, automatic runoff elections if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote. “So when we vote in one election here, we’re really voting in two to three,” Berry said. “And we have to ask ourselves, how many times would you like to have a voice?”

In a public opinion poll conducted by Alaska Survey Research, pollster Ivan Moore found that Democrat Peltola would likely not be eliminated in the first round of voting in the special U.S. House race, with conservative voters divided between Republicans Palin and Begich.

The probability of Peltola being eliminated in the first round “is like, zero,” Moore said.

Berry says that means that in the coming election, voters across the political spectrum should be incentivized to rank more than one candidate.

“If you’re a conservative, you want to ranked everybody to make sure that a liberal candidate doesn’t win just because conservatives couldn’t make nice. If you’re a liberal, you have every incentive to rank every candidate because after liberal candidates have potentially lost, you don’t want the election to be determined by whoever appeals to the most of the conservative base,” he said.

And there are many aspects voters should consider in ranking their second and third choices, including whether they will be swayed by special interests, what staff they will hire and who will be the incumbent in the next election.

“You might have incentive to try to pick a weaker candidate to run against in the future,” Berry said. “Once you get into the point of, ‘OK, I’m voting for people who I disagree with on policy,’ other questions also pop up. No two individuals on this planet are the same.”

“It’s not a debate, it’s a misunderstanding,” Jim Lottsfeldt said about the question of whether to rank more than one candidate. Lottsfeldt is a political consultant who has worked for the campaign of moderate Republican Tara Sweeney, who came in fifth in the special primary and is still in the running for the two-year U.S. House term.

“Some people wrongly assume there’s a disadvantage, but there isn’t. Because if it goes past the first round, you’re counted out,” Lottsfeldt said.

Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The Associated Press and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror.

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