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Jared Kamrass on American Democracy in Peril. Is Ranked Choice Voting the Cure?

Jared Kamrass on American Democracy in Peril. Is Ranked Choice Voting the Cure?Photo from Unsplash

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American Democracy is in Peril. Is Ranked Choice Voting the Cure?

For 50 years, Alaska had been represented by GOP Rep. Don Young in their sole seat in Congress. Young’s sudden passing in 2022 led to a special election in this state that Trump won by 10 points in 2020.

But something interesting happened in what was supposed to be a ho-hum summer election: the Democrat prevailed.

Mary Peltola will be sworn in to finish the remainder of this term. She’ll also be on the ballot in November for a full term.

So what happened?

Peltola, a longtime member of the Alaska legislature, attracted little attention when she announced her bid, overshadowed by celebrity and former Governor Sarah Palin, and Nick Begich, the scion of an Alaskan political dynasty.

The special election was the first time Alaska implemented ranked choice voting, wherein voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of first place votes, the 3rd or 4th place finishers are eliminated with their votes being distributed to the remaining candidates based on their voters’ second choice. Candidates are eliminated in an ‘instant run-off’ until a candidate has a majority of votes. The net result is that candidates must have a majority of first, second, or third choice votes in order to win.

This eliminates the idea of winning seats in congress with primaries being the de facto election or candidates squeaking by in ‘first-past-the-post’ elections and sneaking through with small pluralities.

With Begich coming in third, enough of his voters ranked Peltola as their second choice, or simply didn’t rank any other candidates, that Peltola was able to eke out a win over Palin.

The takeaway? Candidates need to build as broad a coalition as possible in order to rack up ‘second-choice’ votes. Palin’s polarizing style, which has been a reliable way to win Republican primaries, narrowed her appeal significantly when voters could rank voters.

Look for election reform advocates to push Alaska-style ranked-choice elections across the country. Perennial swing state Nevada is putting such a concept to voters this fall.

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