Was ranked-choice voting in Alaska unfair to Republicans?

A recent election for a House seat for the state of Alaska was a good test case for ranked-choice voting. Republicans got more first-place votes, but a Democrat won. Was that fair, or was it a travesty?

What happened in the Alaska special election for US House

Alaska has only a single U.S. House seat. Due to the death of Representative Don Young in March, the state held a special election on August 16. And Alaska uses ranked-choice voting.

The scenario in this Alaska election was remarkably similar to the theoretical scenarios I modeled last week.

Three candidates were on the ballot. Nick Begich III is a traditional pro-business conservative Republican who criticizes President Biden but accepts his election as president. Sarah Palin is the former Republican governor of Alaska who came to prominence as John McCain’s vice-presidential nominee; endorsed by Trump, she has espoused a number of weird and wacky theories over the years. Mary Peltola, a Democrat, is an Alaskan native and former Alaska state representative who campaigned in part on addressing climate change and fishing regulations.

As you might expect, in the first round of voting, the conservative vote split between the two Republicans; Peltola got the most votes and Palin edged out Begich for second place. Because of the way ranked-choice voting works, the next step was to allocate votes for Begich to the candidates that his voters ranked second on their ballots. This diagram from FiveThirtyEight shows the result.


Begich’s votes were distributed as follows: 29% to Peltola, 50% to Palin, and 21% to no one, because the ballot did not specify a second choice (or specified more than one second choice). At the end of this process, Peltola won with 51% of the final vote total.

In a traditional election, Palin would likely have won the Republican primary. It’s not clear who would have won the final election — if the Begich voters split as indicated by these second choice votes, Peltola would have won, while if they voted on party lines, Palin would have won.

To understand whether this process was fair, let’s try to get inside the mind of the Begich voters. Most of them were certainly aware of who Palin was because of her term as governor from 2006 to 2009 and her highly visible career after that. It’s clear that the 50% of Begich voters who voted for her as second choice knew exactly what they were getting. It’s also clear that the 29% of Begich voters who voted for Peltola for second choice preferred a Democrat to the Trump-endorsed, erratic Palin. Begich himself blamed Palin’s loss on her polarizing unpopularity.

What about the 21% of Begich voters who didn’t vote for anyone as a second choice? They may have been confused about ranked-choice voting, or they may have just felt that neither remaining candidate would be a good choice for Representative. I imagine that, looking at the result, they may wish they had marked a second choice to indicate their preference.

Palin, not surprisingly, criticized the process as a “crazy, convoluted, undesirable ranked-choice voting system.” Republican Senator Tom Cotton called it “a scam.” Since Trump lost in 2020, it’s become common for Republicans to criticize elections they lose as unfair. In essence, these complaints are based on the idea that Republican votes should go to a Republican, and since there were more people voting for a Republican for first choice, that a Republican should win.

Of course, that is an argument that ignores that people don’t just vote by party — and in Alaska, 15,445 of those people just contributed to electing a Democrat.

Was this fair? The top two candidates were Palin and Peltola. And among those who expressed a preference among those two choices, Peltola received more votes. To me, that’s a pretty good description of how a fair election works. To believe that Palin won, you have to believe that the Begich voters who marked Peltola for second choice were somehow duped out of voting for Palin — or that those who marked no second choice were actually secretly Palin voters who forgot or were unable to mark her name as second choice.

We’ll have a do-over of this same election in November

This result was certainly an unusual result for Alaska, which hasn’t elected a Democrat to hold its U.S. House seat since 1972. But national politics is shifting; the Dobbs decision striking down abortion protections has energized women and liberal voters, as have recent policy wins for Joe Biden in Congress. In a generic ballot poll question (“Would you prefer a Democrat or a Republican for Congress?”), Democrats are now slightly ahead of Republicans, a shift of three percentage points since April.

Because elections for any given office are typically years apart, you can’t “repeat the experiment” to see if the results are reliable or anomalous. Except, in this case, we can. Because this election was just to fill out the term of an officeholder who had died, we’ll soon have the same candidates running for the same office. The repeat of this election is in November of this year — just two months from now.

You can bet that in these two months, all three candidates will focus on winning, not just first-place votes, but second-place votes as well. The election is very likely to come down to the 11,000 voters who voted for Begich and didn’t have a valid second choice on their ballots.

Peltola will tell voters “If you like Begich and don’t like Palin, vote for me for second choice.” Palin will be forced to tell Begich voters that their second-choice votes matter. And Begich voters may decide he’s not worth a first-place vote and actually vote for their preferred candidate between Palin and Peltola.

If Palin and the Republicans are right, she’ll win by reminding Republican voters to vote Republican for both first and second choices. But if the November results again elect Peltola, that’s a pretty good indication that more voters want Peltola than Palin — and that given the right voting system, voters are smart enough to pick the candidates they want, regardless of what party they’re in.

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  1. I’m really sick if republicans blaming election systems for every loss. There’s no reason one voting for a Republican cannot mark another Republican as their second choice. They chose not to vote for Palin. It seems Republican candidates blame losses on everything except their own shortcomings. In normal times that would mean finding ways to broaden their support. These are not normal times. Their solution is to find a way to manipulate the voting systems to produce the results they want.

    1. Many Democrats blamed the electoral college system for their losses. Both sides are fraught with blame.
      Manipulating the system, of course, is fair game.