On Saturday, June 11th Alaska made history by using its new electoral system for the first time. It features a top-four plurality open primary and a ranked choice voting (RCV) general election.
What does that mean?
To break it down, all candidates (regardless of party affiliation) run in the same primary election. Each voter chooses their top candidate, and the 4 candidates with the most votes move on to the general election. In the general election, voters rank those 4 candidates in order of preference. If any candidate wins over 50% of first-choice votes, they win the election. If no candidate wins a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed to their voters’ second choices. If there is still no candidate with a majority, this elimination and redistribution cycle repeats until somebody has over 50% support.
So how is it playing out so far?
This Saturday was election day for the Alaskan special primary. Congressman Don Young, who was first sworn into office in 1973, held Alaska’s sole seat in the US House of Representatives until he died suddenly on March 18th, 2022. A special election was called to fill the remainder of Young’s term.
A whopping 48 candidates ran in the open primary, 4 of whom will move on to the general election.
As the state’s first election using all mail-in ballots, the votes are still being counted. However, the current unofficial results list Sarah Palin (R) at 28.19%, Nick Begich (R) at 19.24%, Al Gross (Independent) at 12.73%, and Mary Peltola (D) at 8.86%. Those four are likely to advance on to the August 16th general election, although the remaining uncounted ballots have the potential to change that.
As those votes roll in, let’s look at the relationship between RCV and the election’s increase in representation.
There were an unprecedented number of candidates running in the special primary election. Alaska’s last congressional election (in 2020) saw 3 candidates run in the Republican primary, and 3 candidates run in the joint Alaska Democratic and Independence parties primary. At 48 candidates, the 2022 special primary has 8x as many candidates as its 2020 counterpart. Within those 48 candidates, there are an unparalleled number of women and people of color. Any of the 4 Alaska natives running in the special election primary would be the first Alaska native to represent the state (or any state) in Congress.
Though there are several potential reasons for the election’s size, the role of ranked choice voting cannot be overlooked.
In plurality elections, candidates can be discouraged from running for fear of ‘vote splitting.’ Vote splitting is the phenomenon that candidates with similar platforms will divide voters who would be happy with either candidate, preventing either candidate from accumulating enough votes to win. Crowded elections are at particular risk of this. When vote-splitting occurs, the candidate that does win can do so with very little support.
In elections using RCV, candidates do not have to choose between risking splitting the vote or not running at all. Candidates can campaign with the knowledge that if they are eliminated, the votes cast for them will be redistributed—likely to a candidate who shares a similar vision. This encourages more candidates to run.
Ranked choice voting has also been found to increase representation for women and people of color. In California, cities saw a 9-point increase in the percentage of candidates of color running for election after adopting RCV. California cities also saw an increase in the representation of women and of women of color. Once again, this can be tied back to RCV’s resistance to vote splitting in overlapping bases of support.
The primary’s boom in size may also be because RCV makes space for voters who don’t affiliate with a major party to be heard. Though 63% of Alaskans are registered as undeclared or 3rd party voters, independent candidates have struggled to find support under the traditional electoral system. Again, by decreasing the risk of vote-splitting, RCV gives independent voters an opportunity to see representation at the federal level. The 26 independent candidates (54% of the total candidates) in the special primary election far more proportionally represent the Alaskan population than the single independent candidate in Alaska’s 2020 congressional primaries (16% of the total candidates).
With more candidates, including more women and people of color, Alaskans have more choices than ever before. Whoever wins the special election in August will do so with support from a broad swath of Alaskans–giving Alaskans the opportunity to see themselves fairly represented.
Note: FairVote is a nonpartisan 501c3 organization and does not support or oppose any candidate or party. This blog is for educational purposes only and does not represent an endorsement of any candidate or potential candidate.