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Alaska’s Ranked-Choice Voting Scheme Was A Plot To Save Murkowski, But It Also Doomed Palin

Lisa Murkowski
Image CreditAFGE / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

In order to avoid a Republican primary, Murkowski operatives orchestrated a takeover of state election laws.


Election officials called Alaska’s special election House race for Democrat Mary Peltola over 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin last week. Peltola’s victory, despite nearly 60 percent of votes cast for a Republican on all first-choice ballots, will mark the first time since 1973 that a Democrat will represent the state in the lower chamber.

Whether the August contest was Palin’s race or Republican Nick Begich’s race to lose is an open question. Whether the Republicans’ loss was a consequence of Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting system, however, is no doubt, and GOP Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski is the one to blame.

Murkowski’s Plot to Avoid a Primary

In 2010, Sen. Murkowski captured re-election through a triumphant write-in campaign after losing the Republican primary to a former federal magistrate who was backed by Palin. Murkowski comfortably won a third full term in 2016 but continued to antagonize the state’s Republican base with votes to oppose restrictions on abortion, preserve Obamacare, and convict President Donald Trump in his second impeachment. Murkowski also voted “present” in the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and she upset constituents when last year she served as the tie-breaker to move forward the nomination of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who has shut down state development projects.

In other words, Murkowski did not strive to win over Republicans in a state that went for Trump by 10 points in 2020. To save her seat, Murkowski operatives devised a plan to avoid a primary by radically transforming the state’s election system. The answer became ranked-choice voting, a ballot system to rig elections in favor of the incumbent.

Under the ranked-choice ballot system, the traditional partisan primary is replaced by an open-party contest where the top four candidates advance to the general election. Voters then “rank” their preferred candidates in the ensuing race. If none receives a majority, or more than 50 percent of the first-choice ballots cast, the votes are tabulated again and the lowest scoring candidate is eliminated. The losing candidate’s ballots then count toward their second-choice pick, and the process is repeated until a candidate reaches more than 50 percent of the vote.

In August, the investigative group Project Veritas published tapes of Murkowski operatives bragging about fundamentally changing the state’s electoral system to keep Murkowski in power. Democrats, they theorized, would rank Murkowski as their number two preference, giving the incumbent senator the upper hand when the Democrat candidate is eliminated as the lowest vote-getter in a three-way race. This year the contest is between Murkowski, main Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka, and Democrat Patricia Chesbro. In 2020, Alaska voters narrowly approved the state’s new voting system after a successful campaign from Murkowski operatives put the plan before residents as Ballot Measure 2.

“While we were working on Ballot Measure 2 and voting for Ballot Measure 2, we had Sen. Murkowski in mind the whole time,” said Emma Ashlock, a Murkowski campaign coordinator, on camera. “Every single Pat Chesbro voter who ranks Senator Murkowski second, we get their votes.”

Shea Siegert, now the communications director for Murkowski’s re-election campaign, was previously the campaign manager for the group pushing Ballot Measure 2.

In the Alaska House race, Peltola won the seat with nearly 52 percent of the final vote to Palin’s 48.

[LISTEN: How Alaska’s Confusing Ranked-Choice Voting Is Really A Scheme To Keep Murkowski In Office]

Dark Money Provisions Were a Distraction

Ballot Measure 2 was sold to Alaskans as an effort to impose greater transparency in state elections by requiring more information to be public about the source of campaign finances. The package eliminated “dark money” from elections, merged the state’s partisan primaries into one contest, and implemented ranked-choice voting for the general all rolled into one.

In an op-ed for the Anchorage Daily News, one of Alaska’s largest newspapers, local activist and Ballot Measure 2 supporter Kiera O’Brien wrote that the proposal would “make three critical reinforcements to our elections infrastructure.” O’Brien highlighted the initiative’s provisions on dark money first, writing, “it would illuminate dark money’s influence by requiring any group that receives over half its funding from outside Alaska to provide a disclaimer on all public communications.”

Dark money, however, continues to flourish in Alaskan politics.

In August, Joel Davidson, the editor-in-chief of the Alaska Watchman, outlined how dark money from left-wing groups is effectively “bankrolling” campaigns to oppose a state constitutional convention, which re-appears on the ballot every 10 years. Davidson highlighted a campaign expenditure report for “No on 1, Defend Our Constitution” showing that the “Sixteen Thirty Fund” donated $500,000 to oppose a re-examination of the state constitution.

As a nonprofit, the group is not required to reveal its donors.

“Aside from Sixteen Thirty Fund, the ‘No on One, Defend Our Constitution’ has been primarily funded by unions, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers based out of Washington, DC, American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association of Alaska,” Davidson reported. “Each of these groups have donated $50,000. Additionally, the AFL-CIO national union federation has pumped in $50,000 in outside money. Together, these groups have contributed $700,000 of the $821,181 in contributions that No on One has reported thus far.”

Murkowski’s own campaign is funded primarily by outside interests from the lower 48. According to public finance data compiled by OpenSecrets, nearly 85 percent of the senator’s contributions has come from out of state. Only 15 percent came from Alaskan residents in the current cycle. Less than 5 percent of the senator’s financing has come from small-dollar donors. More than 88 percent has come from large individual contributions or political action committees.

Trump-endorsed Republican Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka, on the other hand, has raised less than $17,000 from political action committees amounting to less than 1 percent of her financial support while she remains far more reliant on in-state support, according to OpenSecrets.

In other words, Ballot Measure 2’s provisions on dark money were toothless red herrings to convince voters that its primary purpose was to reform campaign finance as opposed to protecting the incumbent.

A Blueprint to Takeover Elections Nationwide

The ballot system is becoming the go-to measure to reform American elections by left-wing activists who obscure simplicity in the contest. The multiple rounds of tabulation after election day left Alaskan voters in the dark on the winning candidate for weeks until a candidate garnered more than 50 percent of the ballots cast in August.

The system not only robs parties of their ability to nominate the candidates of their choice, but the mechanism adds layers of complexity to an otherwise simple process for conducting elections.

Alaska and Maine are the only two states to use ranked-choice voting for their elections, in addition to nearly two-dozen cities across the country. In November, voters in Nevada will decide whether to adopt the same system, and efforts are underway in Virginia and Arizona to implement similar ranked-choice voting schemes. More campaigns are almost certainly in the pipeline to reform state elections under a ranked-choice system as incumbents such as Murkowski survive true accountability.

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