Maine, which became in 2018 the first state in the U.S. to adopt Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) for federal elections, was joined last year by Alaska, where RCV was rolled out as well for state elections. Moreover, in 2022 RCV tabulations were carried out in both states for races in which no candidate won an absolute majority of first preferences (no RCV counts took place in 2020, as all federal races in Maine were decided on the first count). However, the Alaskan implementation of RCV, while broadly similar to that of Maine, has a number of differences which influenced the outcome of the election in the former.
In many respects, the U.S. House of Representatives election in Maine’s CD-2 was a rerun of the 2018 race. Congressman Jared Golden ran again as the Democratic nominee in the district, while Republicans nominated Bruce Poliquin, who had represented the district from 2015 to 2019, when he lost the seat to Golden. Meanwhile, Tiffany Bond ran again as an independent candidate. As in 2018, no candidate won an overall majority of first preferences, and Golden won once more after Bond was eliminated and her second preferences (along with those of voters who backed write-in nominees) were redistributed among the remaining two candidates.
That said, there were a number of differences with respect to 2018. In 2022, Golden outpolled Poliquin in the first preference count, and went on to win the second count and the election by a larger margin than in 2018, when he narrowly beat Poliquin in a come-from-behind victory. Moreover, Golden won not only an absolute majority of valid second count votes but also of all votes cast, including blank, exhausted and invalid ballots. In addition, a narrow 50.3% majority of CD-2 voters casting valid ballots in the first count ranked at least two candidates (77.7% among Bond voters, 64.3% among Golden voters and 31.1% among Poliquin voters – largely in line with the respective 2018 figures for the same candidates). And It should be noted as well that by 2022 Poliquin accepted the validity of RCV, which he had unsuccessfully challenged in court four years earlier.
That said, the 2022 election results in CD-2 revealed some disconcerting patterns. In the first count, overvoted ballots, invalidated by voters indicating a first preference (or second preference with a skipped first preference) for over one candidate more than doubled since 2018, from 435 to 1,020, although they remained a small fraction (0.3%) of all votes cast. At the same time, while ballots with just one candidate ranked were fewer than those with at least two candidates with valid rankings, the number of ballots with one candidate assigned all rankings grew exponentially, from 7,706 in 2018 to 54,610, of which a large majority (42,985) were cast for Bruce Poliquin. However, voting in that manner is wrong, as clearly spelled out by how-to-vote instructions, which indicate that duplicate rankings have no bearing in the election outcome: in the cited cases only the first preference would be counted as a vote for the indicated candidate, and the increased frequency of such ballots would seem to indicate that many CD-2 voters still don’t understand the workings of RCV.
Ballot Measure 2, narrowly approved by Alaskan voters in a 2020 referendum, not only introduced RCV for federal as well as state executive and legislative offices, but also replaced the existing partisan primaries with a non-partisan blanket primary, in which the top four candidates – chosen by plurality voting – advanced to the general election.
The rules governing RCV counts in Alaska are largely identical to those of Maine, except that Alaska appears to treat differently ballots with duplicate rankings for candidates. Specifically, it’s impossible to replicate from cast vote record data the results of successive RCV rounds in the official reports issued by Alaska’s Division of Elections unless lower duplicate rankings are treated as skipped, which results in a small number of ballots deemed exhausted on account of two or more consecutive skipped rankings.
The new arrangements had an early debut in the summer of 2022, when a special election was held to fill the state’s at-large U.S. House seat, vacant since the sudden death earlier that year of Don Young, who had represented Alaska in Congress for nearly fifty years. In the blanket primary the top four candidates in decreasing order of votes were former Alaska governor and vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin (Republican); Nick Begich (Republican); Al Gross (Independent); and Mary Peltola (Democratic). However, Gross subsequently withdrew from the race and endorsed Peltola, a former state representative.
Although Peltola placed a distant fourth in the special blanket primary, she went on to secure a first preference count plurality in the August special election, ahead of Palin and Begich, and narrowly defeat Palin after Begich was eliminated and his second preferences were transferred. A majority of Begich first preference voters chose Palin as their second preference, but a substantial number either chose Peltola or exhausted their ballots, indicating no preference for either of the two remaining candidates, which in turn prevented Palin from overcoming Peltola’s first preference lead. However, Begich would have prevailed over Peltola in the final round of counting had he managed to outpoll Palin in the first preference count.
Peltola, Palin and Begich also qualified for the general election in the regular blanket primary held in August alongside the special election. They were joined by Libertarian Chris Bye, who came in fifth place, but was allowed to take part in the election following the withdrawal of Tara Sweeney, who placed fourth in the race. In the general election, Peltola won the largest number of first preferences votes once again, just short of an absolute majority, securing an expanded lead over both Palin and Begich, who once more arrived second and third. Peltola won a decisive victory over Palin in the final round of voting, in which Begich was eliminated, and would have also defeated the latter by a substantial margin if he had managed to win more first preference votes than Palin.
Meanwhile, in the blanket primary for the U.S. Senate contest, incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican, topped the poll, followed by Kelly Tshibaka, a conservative Republican, and Patricia Chesbro, a Democrat. Buzz Kelley, a Republican who came in fourth place, subsequently withdrew from the race and endorsed Tshibaka, but remained on the ballot. In the general election Murkowski narrowly outpolled Tshibaka in the first preference count, and went on to win a clear majority in the final count, following the elimination of Chesbro and the transfer of her second preferences.
Although RCV was also implemented for state elections in Alaska, in the gubernatorial election incumbent Mike Dunleavy, a conservative Republican, won an absolute majority of first preferences and consequently no RCV tabulation was carried out for that contest; nonetheless, the cast vote record data furnished by Alaska’s Division of Elections includes the rankings for the gubernatorial race.
In the special election 72.4% of voters casting a valid ballot indicated preferences for at least two candidates, but in the general election the figure dropped to 66.7% (64.3% in the U.S. Senate contest and 66.9% in the gubernatorial race). However, unlike in Maine’s CD-2 in either 2018 or 2022, all U.S. House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates had a majority of first preference voters casting their ballots in that manner, with Kelly Tshibaka having the lowest share (55.9%) and Nick Begich the highest (80.6%) among major party statewide candidates. Interestingly enough, among Peltola first preference voters that figure dropped from 72.8% in the special election to 58.1% in the general election, while among Palin voters it increased slightly between both events, from 64.7% to 69%. In fact, preference combination statistics – available in State of Maine 2018 / 2022 and State of Alaska 2022 Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) Election Data – indicate that in the general election voters who ranked Peltola first and skipped all other rankings constituted the largest single group (52,732) for the U.S. House contest.
While both Palin and Tshibaka conceded defeat in their respective races, both cited RCV as a major factor in the adverse outcomes. That said, it’s by no means certain either would have prevailed under the arrangements previously in place in Alaska. Both might have won traditional partisan primaries, but Palin’s evident unpopularity among many Begich voters would have remained a liability under plurality voting in the special election and particularly the general election. Meanwhile, Senator Murkowski might have opted to run as a write-in candidate had she lost the GOP nomination in a traditional primary, and possibly prevail as such in the election, as she did back in 2010. Moreover, in the case of the U.S. House contest it’s worth noting that in recent years the late Don Young had been re-elected by noticeably reduced percentage margins – down to mid-to-high single digits – which suggested the seat might have become very competitive even under plurality voting once he was no longer the GOP nominee.
Nonetheless, Peltola’s upset victory in the special election reinforced the view among many Republicans that RCV is designed to deliver an unfair partisan advantage to Democrats, and that perception is likely to foment resistance to its adoption in other states. In addition, it’s not clear that the success under RCV of Republican candidates like Gov. Mike Dunleavy in Alaska or Sen. Susan Collins in Maine will help to dispel that notion (all the more so since both won outright in first preference counts, where the absence of RCV tabulations might lead some voters to erroneously assume such victories were achieved under plurality voting). Even so, in 2022 Nevada voted to switch to RCV, although that change won’t become final until confirmed by voters in a second referendum, scheduled to be held in 2024.
Finally, some early RCV advocates in the U.S. have since moved on to push for the adoption of other electoral systems such as party-list proportional representation. However, at the present time such proposals have yet to gain any traction, and what momentum exists for electoral reform appears to be in favor of RCV.