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Here’s Why Sarah Palin Lost to Alaska Native Democrat Mary Peltola
Many pundits/experts are getting it wrong, blaming Ranked Choice Voting
Hell hath no fury like a Republican’s election defeat. So no one should be surprised that Sarah Palin’s shocking loss to Democrat Mary Peltola in a special election in Alaska to fill a congressional vacancy has the GOP chattering class in full Mount Vesuvius mode, spouting fire and ash.
Following the announcement, right-wing GOP Senator Tom Cotton tweeted "Ranked-choice voting is a scam to rig elections…60 percent of Alaska voters voted for a Republican, but thanks to a convoluted process and ballot exhaustion — which disenfranchises voters — a Democrat 'won.'"
Palin herself issued a statement decrying “what resulted from someone’s experiment with this new crazy, convoluted, confusing ranked-choice voting system. It’s effectively disenfranchised 60% of Alaska voters.”
What Cotton and Palin are referring to is that the two leading Republican candidates, Palin and Nick Begich, together got about 60% of the first rankings. But the second-place Palin was nine points behind front runner Peltola, 40% to 31%. That was a substantial gap to close. And when the RCV tally of all voters’ rankings was run, Peltola bested Palin, 51.5% to 48.5%.
How could this have happened in a race in which Republican candidates won 60% of the first rankings? The answer to that question is very “Alaska-ish.” Most Lower 48 observers don’t realize this, but while Alaska is a heavily conservative state, it is actually not that strong of a Republican state. That’s a crucial difference, which I’ll explain a bit more about in a moment.
Amidst all the inflammatory blaming and rhetoric, as well as the mainstream liberal pundits who love seeing the “Alaskan Evita” getting her comeuppance, a few critical points are being lost.
Understanding some of the nuances of this particular race gives us a better insight into not only ranked choice voting, but also why comprehending the impact of electoral systems is so important to a functioning democracy.
Unfortunately, it is still not widely understood how the electoral system is so fundamental and crucial to any political system. In truth, when you select a particular method for your local, state or national elections you are selecting a set of values, principles and philosophy of government, as well as a range of accompanying effects and externalities. Once you internalize the full import of this knowledge, you realize it is quietly revolutionary.
So let’s strap in and take a brief tutorial on electoral systems.
The values prioritized by the “plurality wins all” voting method, which Alaskans voted to replace with ranked choice voting, is that any candidate with the strongest core of support – as evidenced by having the highest number of votes, even if far less than a majority -- should win. This is the most widely used electoral method in the US, used to elect members of Congress, the president and most state legislatures. It is apparently the method favored by Palin and her MAGA Republicans too, since Palin believes she would have defeated Begich in a Republican primary, and then have rallied all Republicans to vote for “anyone but the damn Democrat.”
Other electoral systems, such as approval voting, score voting or Condorcet voting, valorize a winner that has a broad base of support, even if that candidate does not have a strong core. That means a candidate who is not highly desirable to many voters can nevertheless win because that candidate is at least acceptable to more voters than any other candidate.
Ranked choice voting combines the best of these “core support” vs. “broad support” worlds. The values and principles of RCV are that winners must have both a strong enough core and a broad enough base to win. It has been used for over 100 years in different countries and increasingly in the US. But these other methods have barely been used at all, especially not in public elections where voters and candidates care a great deal about outcomes.
Having candidates who have a strong following but can only win by successfully reaching beyond their core supporters injects representative democracy with the right values and principles. And unfortunately those values and principles are kryptonite for divisive and polarizing candidates like Sarah Palin, Donald Trump and many other extreme MAGA Republicans.
Alaska is a conservative state…but not that Republican
Here’s the real shocker and the real story that the pundits missed – fewer than 25% of registered voters in Alaska are Republicans. That’s the same as the percentage of Republicans in heavily-blue California. But with only 13% of Alaskans registered as Democrats, this is a state that Trump won by 10 points in 2020 and a Democrat had not won Alaska’s lone congressional seat since the early 1970s.
But one of the defining characteristics of the Alaskan political landscape is that most voters are in fact registered as some type of independent. Sixty percent of registered voters have chosen "Non-Partisan," "Undeclared" or Alaskan Independence Party as their political affiliation.
And those independents tend to be no-nonsense, self-reliant types who don’t much care for political parties any more than they care for big government. They have a low tolerance for candidates who are too “Washington,” such as a former reality TV celebrity like Palin who resigned halfway through her term as governor to gallivant in the Lower 48 (Palin gets a bit of my sympathy – Alaska is cold and dark for many months of the year).
Indeed, Alaska is a state dominated by a philosophy that prizes a neoclassical view of individual liberty above all else, and doesn’t much like government intrusion or regulation. The Last Frontier, as our nation’s largest, mammoth state is nicknamed, sees itself as the very embodiment of the Ronald Reagan mantra of “Government is the problem.” When I ran the first campaign for ranked choice voting in Alaska (we lost – long story), I was told that philosophy extended to things like building codes and standards, and residential construction. Sure enough, the outside decks on several of my neighbors’ houses were falling off because any ham-and-egger with a hammer could open up a contractor “business,” whether they knew their trade or not. Combine that with severe winters of sub-Arctic temperatures and cracks filled with expanding ice, and the neighbors’ decks all had acquired a dangerous-looking downslope tilt.
During that RCV campaign, I remember one quintessentially Alaska-ish character, a disaffected German expat named Günter. He owned a restaurant/bar and generously gorged my entire campaign crew every night on fresh baked salmon with all the trimmings. Lucky us. But later we learned that the salmon apparently had been caught illegally, because Günter employed a fishwheel to catch his fish, which is like a watermill in which the river current keeps the baskets of the fishwheel constantly churning, scooping up the salmon into the baskets and then dumping them into a collection pen (see this video). Ingenious design, humanity prevailing over nature with simple technology – that would soon wipe out the entire salmon stock if not regulated through a permit system that prevents widespread commercial use. Permitted fisher people were allowed to use their fishwheels to catch a “subsistence” level of salmon. But Günter, who had fled Germany to get away from what he saw as over-zealous government regulators and nanny state watchdogs, applied a policy of happy disdain toward such fishing limits.
These are the types of independents that Palin had to win the second-choice rankings from. Palin did manage to win 50% of Begich voters’ second choices, but in the biggest surprise, 29% of Begich voters ranked the Democrat Mary Peltola as their second choice. And another 21% declined to rank a second choice at all.
It’s as if there are different types of conservatives in Alaska. Let’s call them Type 1, who are solid Republican voters with an allegiance to party over philosophy; and Type 2 conservatives, with allegiance to philosophy over any political party. The 50% of Begich supporters who ranked Palin second are the Type 1 conservatives; the 50% that either ranked Peltola second or left it blank were Type 2 conservatives.
Also, props must be given to Mary Peltola, who ran a near-flawless campaign as a softly moderate Alaska Native who called herself “pro-fish” and “pro-choice,” and conditionally supported hot-button projects like oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She ran a largely positive campaign, calling herself a “regular Alaskan” to contrast herself from the celeb Palin, even as Begich and Palin traded nasty barbs in the final weeks before the August 16 election. Sensing the temperature of the times, Peltola’s platform highlighted her position as the only candidate who supported abortion access. In Downsian terms, she better touched the median voters in this race that were spread widest across the middle of the bell-shaped curve, while Palin and Begich savaged each other trying to attract the most voters from the extreme fringes of the curve.
Even as GOP boo-hoo’ers blame RCV and call for a return to the previous “plurality wins all” system with a closed partisan primary, it’s not completely clear that would have changed the outcome of this race. Given all of these dynamics, and the complexities of the Type 1 vs. Type 2 conservatives, it is entirely conceivable that many of those Begich voters would not have turned out to vote in a standalone runoff – just as they didn’t rank Palin as a second choice.
In fact, if Alaska had been using its previous system, Palin and Begich would have been attacking each other even more ferociously to see which of them would have been the final survivor on the island of the Republican primary. That mano-a-mano fisticuffs would have made it even more difficult for Palin to rally Begich supporters behind her, especially given her high negative numbers among the Type 2 conservatives.
GOP attacks on exhausted ballots
In their attacks on ranked choice voting, some of the Republican apparatchiks focused on the number of “exhausted ballots” – 11,222 of them to be precise, about 6% of the ballots cast, in which voters did not express a second preference. This is a normal feature of RCV elections, but even if fully utilized, Palin would have needed to win about 47% of those exhausted ballots to catch Peltola. She did win 50% of Begich voter’s second rankings, but that leaves a very small margin of slippage for her to pull it out, especially among these Type 2 conservatives.
Boiling it all down, the real question is – who are those voters who exhausted their ballots, and did they do that because they truly didn’t like Palin and wouldn’t vote for her under any system? Or did they not understand that they could use their second ranking for Palin?
Given the extremely low rate of invalid ballots (a mere 0.2%), and the 85% of Alaskans who said in an exit poll that ranking is simple, this doesn’t seem like it was a very confused electorate. A more likely conclusion is that most of those 11,222 Begich voters who did not rank a second candidate knew exactly what they were doing. Given the 9 point deficit that Palin had to overcome, it seems unlikely that she would have prevailed in any system.
So here is the real storyline of this election: RCV actually should have been a method that allowed the conservative vote to coalesce around the strongest Republican candidate. But when one of those candidates was so divisive, with a well-known negative history in Alaska, and was endorsed by the Clown Prince of Political Jokerdom, Donald Trump, that candidate proved to be so polarizing that she couldn’t rally Alaska conservatives to beat a Democrat. Those types of candidates have a hard time winning in RCV elections.
But Palin will have another chance in November, when she Begich and Peltola will face off again to permanently fill the vacancy. The Republican candidates will have a second crack at conducting themselves according to the incentives of the RCV system – mobilize your core base, but not in a way that alienates your chances to attract broad support. At minimum, that means Palin and Begich need to figure out how to make nice with each other, not caring which of them finishes ahead of the other as long as one of them beats the Democrat.
Some say that this trait defies the self-centeredness of human nature. Palin has already called for Begich to drop out of the race, while Begich has called Palin unelectable, saying in an election night statement "Sarah Palin cannot win a statewide race because her unfavorable ratings are so high."
Mary Peltola, the very model of a successful RCV candidate, must be clapping with glee. In any case, RCV allowed Alaskans to express their true sentiments, and that's a very good thing. Ranked choice voting’s mechanics — a byproduct of the dual “core support/broad support” values inherent to this specific electoral system — allowed the electorate to express its complex and nuanced views to reach a decisive, though surprising, outcome.
The real winners were Alaskan voters.
Steven Hill @StevenHill1776
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