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Ranked-choice voting: Will it lead to Sarah Palin’s political comeback?

Sarah Palin has another shot at Alaska’s House seat in November after losing a special election in August

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A Salt Lake City Council ballot with ranking options.

A Salt Lake City Council ballot with ranking options is pictured in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

In August, Republican Sarah Palin lost Alaska’s first ranked-choice voting special election, which determined who will fill the temporary House seat in place of former Republican Rep. Don Young, who died in March.

Democrat Mary Peltola beat Palin in the primary vote, allowing her to fill the state’s House seat, but only until January. Whoever wins the general election in November will take over in January, giving Palin a second shot at a political comeback.

Alaska’s November House ballot

Along with Peltola — the temporary House winner — Palin, Nicholas Begich (R) and Chris Bye (L) will all have a second shot at the House seat in November, to determine who will be sworn in in January and serve a full house term, according to Ballotpedia.

Pew reports that when first-round votes were counted in the primary, Peltola had 40.2% of the vote compared to Palin’s 31.2%, and Begich trailed with 28.5%.

However, in the second round of votes, Palin reportedly had more votes than Peltola. Under Alaska’s ranked-choice system, Begich’s voters’ second-choice votes were distributed between Palin and Peltola. However, neither of them had enough — over 50% of the vote — to conclude the race. Eventually, as the ranked-choice system ran its course, in a rare occurrence a Democrat — Peltola — won Alaska’s House seat with 51.5% of the vote, Palin following with 48.5%.

What is ranked-choice voting?

In Alaska’s 2020 general election, voters narrowly ruled to establish a ranked-choice voting system, putting the principle into action for the first time in August’s special primary House election.

The state’s website defines ranked-choice voting as a ballot system allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference, rather than only voting for one candidate.

In the first round, all first-choice votes are counted. If one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, then they win the election, and counting stops.

In each round, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. If someone had voted for that candidate, their vote will go to their second choice candidate, and so on. If your first-choice candidate is not eliminated, your vote will still go to them.

This second step continues to repeat until two candidates are left, and the one with the most votes wins.

Alaska has uploaded sample ballots to its website, detailing what a ranked-choice ballot would look like.

Why ranked-choice voting?

Alaska Public Media states that the ranked-choice measure was primarily sponsored by out-of-state sources, such as Action Now Initiative based out of Texas and Unite America from Colorado.

Accompanying ranked-choice voting in the 2020 measure were initiatives to adopt politician transparency when it came to donations and a choice to hold four primary elections, instead of the standard one per year.

Advocates for a ranked-choice ballot argue that this form of voting allows more of the population to have a say in the overall vote. Through ranked choice voting, a candidate can only win if they have 50% or more of the vote.

Alaskans for Better Elections claims that ranked-choice voting “encourages positive campaigning since candidates have to go beyond their base and build broader coalitions to win a majority of the electorate. Ranked choice voting also allows for more voices in our elections because candidates no longer have to worry about the ‘spoiler effect’ — when two ideologically similar candidates split the vote.”

Alaska’s website states that ranking more than one candidate “ensures your vote will go toward your second, third, fourth or fifth choice if your top choice is eliminated, giving you more voice in who wins.”

Rankedvote, an online ranked-choice voting platform, acknowledges some common criticism of ranked-choice voting. This form of voting is new to many voters, and can be difficult for some people to understand at first and takes widespread education efforts from local governments to catch the public up to speed. This can result in a more complicated and expensive election, which could deter voters from participating and make it harder for some governmental bodies to execute.

In a ranked-choice election, there is a chance that the candidate with the most first-choice votes could lose. In such a case, a candidate with more second-choice votes could beat out a candidate who has the highest amount of first-choice votes.

Derek Monson from the Sutherland Institute states that ranked voting could receive criticism in America’s current political climate that stands under allegations of corrupt and “stolen” elections.

“Heightened attacks on election outcomes have become a common feature in the current political climate, with resulting harm to public trust in the institutions of voting and elections,” Monson said. Such allegations and distrust could only increase with a new, relatively unfamiliar, and untraditional system of voting.

What’s next?

Mary Peltola’s win was a historic one, given that a Democrat hasn’t held the state’s only House seat since 1972, according to Reuters. Peltola is Yup’ik, making her the first Alaskan Native to hold a seat in Congress and the first woman in the state’s House history. More notability lies in the fact that Peltola beat out Sarah Palin, a former vice-president nominee and former governor who has been in the political spotlight since 2008.

Election prediction sites, such as Politico and Race to the WH, both predict, however, that the House will stay red come November, citing historical Republican influences in the states.

The New York Times backs up these claims, stating that Alaska may continue to follow its trend of electing Republican and Libertarian candidates. Mark Larkin, a Republican pollster told the Times that he thinks Palin still has a shot at the January seat, because of the closeness of the polls.

“Sarah Palin still has a path forward because it was still quite close,” Larkin said. “It will come down to how she and other candidates adapt.”