Meditations on ranked choice voting in the 49th state
Where choices were once obvious, we have an opportunity to decide between candidates who share common goals and are encouraged to think about the differences without fear of "throwing away" our vote.
Happy Friday, Alaska! It’s great to be back in Alaska after a getaway to the sunny and sweltering Pacific Northwest. Let’s get to it.
In this edition: It’s been a week and change since Alaskans went to the polls for our first foray into the world of ranked choice voting. While there’s been plenty of opportunities to attempt to divine the outcome, it’s also been a good opportunity to reflect on the underlying exercise of ranking candidates and what it means for the the big-ticket races moving forward. Also, the reading list and weekend watching.
Current mood: 🌧/🎡
Meditations on ranked choice voting
It’s been a week and a half since Alaskans went to the polls, putting the state’s new ranked choice voting election system to the test with the special U.S. House race. The waiting period for results has opened the door for plenty of prognostication and algebraic attempts to predict how things will break down when the state finally tabulates the ranked choice votes in that race next week. Whether we end up with Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola or Republican Rep. Sarah Palin will rely entirely on how Alaskans—specifically the 28% who voted for GOP establishment-preferred candidate Nick Begich or the 1.53% who wrote in a candidate—ranked the remainder of their ballot.
While trying to guess the behavior of Alaska voters is a time-honored tradition here, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what it was like to be a voter approaching ranked choice voting. There’s been plenty of talk about whether voters fully understand the system and what happens in a litany of long-shot edge cases, but, if anything, I found the process of approaching RCV as a refreshing opportunity to think beyond the bounds of a traditional election.
So many races have boiled down to an Us vs. Them choice without a whole lot of room for nuance or even overlap on key issues. Where the choices were once obvious depending on your personal politics, we now have an opportunity to decide between candidates who share common goals and are encouraged to think about the differences without the fear that we’d be “throwing away” our vote. And even if the decisions ultimately prove clear, I still think the exercise of thinking through the slate of candidates to understand who you definitely support, who you sorta support and who you definitely and steadfastly oppose is useful. It gives us voters more agency in expressing our positions on the ballot and also reinforces the idea that politics isn’t an entirely zero-sum game. And, yes, backing the candidate with the best chance of winning in order to keep the least-desirable candidate far from elected office—a hallmark of the old system—is still a totally valid consideration in RCV.
The race for governor puts this strategy on center stage for many. Gov. Mike Dunleavy is out in front in the primary election with leading opponents, independent former Gov. Bill Walker and Democratic former Rep. Les Gara, almost evenly splitting the vote. In this race, the two certainly have differences but they have the shared goal of defeating Dunleavy. Success for them will greatly rely on just how coordinated their efforts are in boosting one another. A bitter fight for second place—a necessary fight if you want to stay alive in the race—opens the door for Dunleavy to walk right into a second term.
Just look at how the special U.S. House race is playing out. There, the GOP’s goal of keeping the seat in Republican hands could be fumbled away if the bitter fighting between Palin and Begich results in a significant chunk of Begich voters doing anything other than rank Palin with their later votes. Will Begich voters be committed to GOP control if it means having to hold their nose and vote for Palin? Or are they more committed to backing the party’s preferred candidate?
It's ironic that it’s Palin, who spent much of the race embracing Trump’s election conspiracies and bashing RCV as some kind of nefarious system where victory is handed to the second-place finisher, whose entire chance of reaching Congress relies on the new election system working as intended. Remember, also, that the open top-four special primary is entirely a result of Ballot Measure 2—previously, parties were in control of who reached the ballot.
But it’s that same conspiracy Palin has embraced that could sour voters on utilizing the voting system to its fullest (and, if there’s any person a GOP establishment voter would refuse to vote for, it’s probably Sarah Palin). Every Begich voter who only ranked him, or who decided to rank Peltola before they ranked Palin, is effectively a vote for Peltola.
We’ll find out on Aug. 31. In the meantime, my podcasting partner in crime Pat Race has done quite a bit of homework on the hypothetical numbers Peltola needs to win.
Finally, it’s been interesting to watch as voters on the left struggle with the reality that U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is clearly the only viable candidate in the race if your primary concern is keeping Kelly Tshibaka out of the U.S. Senate (which, let’s be clear, is a worthy goal). In the era of Biden, Murkowski has sounded a lot less like the independent maverick who stymied the some of the worst impulses of Trump and a lot more like, well, a Republican. She’s not exactly making it easy for progressive voters to support her when she comes out swinging against college debt forgiveness or the Democrats’ attempts to pass expansive protections for abortion (though she’s cool with codifying Roe v. Wade).
It’s a good reminder that all these moderate Republicans and the quote-unquote “moderate” Republicans who’ve been sent packing from the Legislature in recent years aren’t liberals just because they don’t like Trump and/or Dunleavy. But, then again, not liking Trump and/or Dunleavy can be a selling point on its own.
That certainly seems to be the case given the likelihood of a large crossover between Peltola voters and Murkowski voters on the primary ballot. One high-end estimate suggests that as many as two-thirds of Murkowski’s backers in the Senate primary could also be Peltola voters.
The Midnight Sun Memo by Matt Buxton is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
It’s been a wild couple weeks in Anchorage, starting last week with a must-read blog post by Alaska Public Media reporter Lex Treinen that detailed what it was like to cover the Joe Gerace-led health department from its inception. It’s a riveting story that, frankly, shows the importance of having curious and committed reporters covering the scummy underbelly of local politics. There are accusations of bullying, shouting and having the city’s spokesman tail him while reporting. And that was all before Treinen caught wind of Gerace’s deception of the city. From the blog of Lex Treinen: The real Joe Gerace
Of course, it would never stop there. Anchorage Human Resources Director Niki Tshibaka, who did the most work covering for Gerace during the confirmation process, has been cut off from any oversight of the completely separate investigation of Anchorage Library Deputy Director Judy Eledge and the hostile workplace she’s created. Faced with concerns earlier this year, the city abruptly fired the Office of Equal Opportunity director and Tshibaka was later seen wearing a “I stand with Judy” shirt. Real professional. From Alaska Public Media: Anchorage HR director ‘walled off’ from investigating library staff complaints
The Anchorage Assembly overrode Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson’s vetoes of Covid-19 relief grants that, surprise, were slated to fund the city’s response to homelessness, minority groups and LGBTQ groups. From the ADN: Anchorage Assembly overrides Mayor Bronson’s vetoes on formation of homelessness task force and federal relief funds
Also, it’s been more than a year and a half since Anchorage voters approved additional taxes for body cameras. We’re still waiting. From the ADN: ‘Ignoring the will of voters’: Groups demand progress on body cameras for Anchorage police
The ACLU has filed a lawsuit challenging the state over its lack of an avenue for ballot curing. Legislation doing just that was considered during the legislative session but it failed at the finish line. From KTUU: Lawsuit filed over lack of ballot-curing process in Alaska elections
The state has dropped charges against a murder suspect after courts ruled that the Fairbanks Police Department violated the suspect’s Miranda rights when they interrogated him for the violent murder of his girlfriend and dog two years ago. From the News-Miner: Murder charges dismissed after judge throws out confession
I grew up in a sleepy Southwest Portland neighborhood so I never had much interaction with off-road vehicles beyond my parents’ warnings that four-wheelers—and something called a three-wheeler—were extraordinarily dangerous.
Turns out they were right.
Have a nice weekend, y’all! I’m off to the fair.