Alaskans went to the polls Tuesday for the first time using a new ranked choice system that’s already under attack by a number of the politicians competing within it, and voters, in interviews, offered wide-ranging reviews.
Many said they like the new system, and called it intuitive. But there was also venom Tuesday from voters across the political spectrum — even though much of the criticism of ranked choice, narrowly approved by voters in 2020, has so far come from conservatives who assert that it was set up to protect incumbent GOP U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski from right-wing challengers.
“I think the ranked choice thing is ridiculous, and I think most voters didn’t know what the heck they were voting for,” said Joanne Lauer, who said she picked Democrat Mary Peltola as her top choice in Tuesday’s ranked choice election for Alaska’s open seat in the U.S. House.
The new system, Lauer said, confounded her husband too. “We got him up to speed,” she added, “but my mother was at the senior center, and they’re all confused over there.”
Critics of the new system at Lauer’s right-leaning polling place, in Peters Creek northeast of Anchorage, called ranked choice “stupid,” “dumb” and a scheme to elect more Democrats in a Republican-leaning state. But many others, including conservatives, said they like the new system and want Alaskans to have time to get used to it.
“I ranked my conservatives, and I didn’t vote for anybody else,” said Riley Anderson, a 31-year-old corrections officer who said he chose Palin first. “With the ranked system, you can vote for who you truly think is correct, and have the lesser of two evils ranked last.”
The mixed reactions are a preview of a brewing political battle over the future of the new election system, and whether it will survive. And they come as political observers across the country are giving the ideas it contains a harder look, including in Nevada, where residents will vote later this year on adopting a framework similar to Alaska’s.
The citizens initiative that put Alaska’s ranked choice system into place, and simultaneously eliminated the state’s partisan primaries, passed in 2020 by just 1%. Since then, it’s been protected by a provision in the Alaska Constitution that bars lawmakers from repealing an initiative for two years after its passage.
But that window closes after this year’s general election, and one legislative leader said he expects some of his colleagues to target at least part of the 2020 initiative for repeal next year — particularly if Alaska’s mostly Democratic House majority flips to Republican control. Wasilla GOP Rep. David Eastman already introduced a bill in February to repeal the initiative, which picked up a Republican co-sponsor in Rep. George Rauscher of Sutton.
“I’m pretty confident there’ll be an attempt to institute partial repeal,” Dillingham independent Rep. Bryce Edgmon, a member of House leadership, said in a phone interview Tuesday night.
Several leading Republican candidates have been attacking Alaska’s new election system on the campaign trail this year. They’re led by former Gov. Sarah Palin, who was one of three candidates in Tuesday’s ranked choice election for U.S. House.
After Tuesday’s initial ballot count, Palin was in second place, trailing a few percentage points behind Peltola, the Democrat. The result makes it possible that the new ranking system could actually hand Palin the election: Republican Nick Begich III is currently ranked last and set to be eliminated, which could transfer enough of his second choice votes to the former vice presidential candidate for her to win.
Nonetheless, Palin continued blasting the system in her election night statement, which called ranked choice voting “crazy, convoluted” and “cockamamie” and said voters feel confused, angry and disenfranchised.
The backers of the 2020 proposal, who have transformed their initiative campaign into a multimillion-dollar education effort on the new system, say their work was intended to benefit voters, and not to please candidates.
They originally pitched the measure as a way to reduce political parties’ influence in Alaska, by changing the state’s partisan primaries to an open system where all primary candidates appear on one ballot. (The top four finishers advance to the ranked choice general election.)
The proposal’s boosters also said it would make it easier for moderates and harder for extremists to get elected, and that it shouldn’t be a surprise if extremists don’t like it.
“This reform has always been about voters, and it’s empowering voters to have more choices and more power,” Jason Grenn, the independent former state legislator from Anchorage who leads the education effort, said in a phone interview late Tuesday. “When I served in office, I heard from a lot of voters that the old system was keeping them from expressing themselves fully.”
For the past year, Grenn and his two colleagues at Alaskans for Better Elections have been crisscrossing the state, both in-person and virtually, to teach Alaskans how the new system works.
The group has also hired a pair of contractors, including Republican strategist Sarah Erkmann Ward, who’s tasked with outreach to conservatives; it’s paying a lobbying firm $75,000 to represent its interests in Juneau.
Grenn said he’s delivered his 30-minute Zoom presentation nearly 300 times in the past year. His group has left voting information in food bank boxes, and it’s appeared at state fairs.
“We know it’s a big shift,” Grenn said. “We left no stone unturned in looking for ways we could connect with Alaskans.”
The state elections division has mounted its own public education campaign, and Alaska campaigns and political parties have each been broadcasting their own messages about how voters should use the ranking system: Republicans, for example, told conservatives to “rank the red” in the U.S. House race and leave Peltola off their ballots entirely.
Mary Rapp, a retired Anchorage schoolteacher and a registered Republican, said those efforts left her hearing too many different messages to make sense of them.
“Everybody has their ideas. Like, one party will say, ‘Just vote all red.’ The other party will say, ‘Don’t vote for the second one,’ ” she said in an interview after voting Tuesday at Anchorage’s state elections office. “And then another one just says, ‘Check off the ones you know.’ ”
She added: “Everybody’s confused, even though they try to un-confuse you.”
A few blocks away, statewide candidates were waving signs at a busy Midtown Anchorage intersection where their views, like voters’, sharply diverged.
Trump-endorsed Republican Kelly Tshibaka, who’s running for U.S. Senate against Murkowski, said she thinks the system could work if voters could understand it.
“But it will take a while for people to understand,” she said. And in a state “where people prefer hunting and fishing and camping and hiking,” she added, “I don’t know that they’ll ever fully understand it.”
Tshibaka said she’s been hearing from voters who feel ranked choice voting is “rigged” after last week’s publication of secretly recorded videos by the conservative activist group Project Veritas. (Tshibaka herself said she does not believe the system is predetermined or fraudulent.) The videos showed low-level Murkowski campaign aides saying that the senator “stayed quiet” during the initiative campaign but still supported the measure; they also said the initiative’s creators designed it in part to ensure that Murkowski would be returned to the Senate.
Murkowski and initiative backers, in interviews in recent days, have said the videos show little that Alaskans didn’t already know. Murkowski said she was “one of the 147,000 Alaskans” who thought that the state’s elected system could be improved.
“You’ve got some big huge conspiracy because, why? Because some of the people who have helped me on prior campaigns also were engaged in the ballot initiatives,” she said. “Does this mean that I somehow conspired so that it could be my political advantage? Excuse me: I had one vote on this.”
Murkowski also rejected Tshibaka’s contention that Alaskans won’t take the time to understand the new election system; she said voters across the state grasp plenty of other complex issues.
“You go out on the Upper Yukon, who’s ever heard of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in the Lower 48? You’ve got these little senior ladies, these elders that are talking as smart fish policy as you’re ever going to find,” Murkowski said. “We are informed. And anybody who suggests that we aren’t, they have not been interacting with the real Alaskans.”
ADN reporters Michelle Theriault Boots and Iris Samuels contributed to this story.