Last night, Democrat Mary Peltola defeated Republican firebrand and former governor Sarah Palin in Alaska’s special election for its vacant House seat. Palin should have won. But it was Alaska’s first time using ranked-choice voting in an election, and that spelled the Trump-backed candidate’s doom.
For those unfamiliar with ranked-choice voting, here’s a primer: if a candidate does not receive a majority — i.e., more than 50 percent — of first-place votes, ballots are retabulated, the lowest-vote getter is eliminated, and their votes go to voters’ second choice. This process continues until a candidate clears 50 percent of the vote.
In the first round of voting, Peltola won 40.2 percent of first choice preferences, followed by Palin’s 31.1 percent, and Republican Nick Begich III’s 28.5 percent. This means 59.6 percent of voters initially cast their ballot for Republican candidates.
After Begich was eliminated in the second round of tabulation and his votes reallocated, 50 percent of Begich voters ranked Palin as their second choice; with 29 percent crossing party lines to vote for Mary Peltola. 21 percent of his voters chose not to rank a second choice, a phenomenon otherwise known as ballot exhaustion.
With more than one-fifth of Begich’s voters declining to rank a second candidate, Peltola was given the boost she needed to secure her 3-point victory (51.5 percent of the final vote tally) over Palin (48.5 percent).
In a state Trump won by 10 points in 2020, Palin should have been a shoo-in. Peltola will be the first Democrat to hold Alaska’s lone congressional seat since the early 1970s, despite nearly 60 percent of Alaska voters casting their ballots for a Republican.
Palin’s loss and such extreme voter disenfranchisement can be attributed to Alaska’s adoption of ranked-choice voting, an electoral system Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski was instrumental in pushing through.
According to Project Veritas, Murkowski staffers worked to change Alaska’s primary into a ranked-choice voting system so as to ensure Murkowski would defeat Trump-endorsed challenger Kelly Tshibaka. And it worked. After Alaska voters approved Ballot Measure 2 — an initiative that established ranked-choice voting and discarded multiple party primaries — Murkowski beat Tshibaka in the Senate primary. If not for Ballot Measure 2, Tshibaka would’ve likely defeated Murkowski in a traditional partisan primary. Come November, Murkowski will likely beat Tshibaka again — all thanks to her efforts to enshrine ranked-choice voting into law.
In effect, Murkowski just botched her own party’s showing in Alaska. By pushing ranked-choice voting to ensure her own survival — and evade Republican voters’ ire due to her impeachment vote — she disenfranchised thousands of Alaskans and cost Palin her congressional seat. Peltola is only heading to Congress because she picked up nearly 30 percent of Begich’s votes. Under a traditional first-past-the-post system (through which most U.S. House races are decided), this would not have happened.
While Peltola, Palin, and Begich will face off again in the regularly scheduled general election for the same U.S. House seat this November, it’s likely the outcome will be the same — all thanks to Murkowski.