Ranked-choice voting is on the rise, but if Alaska’s open primary fiasco is any indication, that’s not a good thing.
This November, Nevada voters will debate an open primary and ranked-choice voting ballot initiative known as Question 3. The initiative would institute nonpartisan primaries and ask voters to rank up to five choices in general elections. Despite promises made by progressive cheerleader organizations like FairVote that ranked-choice voting “mitigates vote splitting,” “minimizes strategic voting,” and reduces “political polarization,” doing away with partisan elections will only sideline the most popular candidates while requiring voters to allocate their rankings counterintuitively.
In November 2020, Alaska voters approved a similar ballot initiative to Nevada’s Question 3, designed to eliminate partisan primaries and implement top-four ranked-choice voting in general elections. The initiative passed by about 1 percent — a margin of 3,700 votes. The new format debuted on June 11 after Alaska Rep. Don Young’s death created a vacancy in the House of Representatives. Although Question 3 would allow five candidates to progress to the general elections, rather than four, the logistics — and lessons — remain largely the same.
Out of 48 candidates who entered Alaska’s pick-one jungle primary, four were slated to advance to the general election on Aug. 16: former Gov. Sarah Palin (27 percent), Republican Nick Begich III (19 percent), nonpartisan Al Gross (13 percent), and Democrat Mary Peltola (10 percent). Gross dropped out shortly after the results were announced, leaving only two Republican candidates, Palin and Begich, and one Democrat, Peltola.
Peltola — who received only 10 percent of the primary vote — received 40 percent of the first-choice rankings in the general election. Palin and Begich split the Republican first-choice votes with 31.3 percent and 28.5 percent respectively. Because no candidate received more than 50 percent of first-choice votes and Begich received the fewest votes in the first round, he was eliminated. His votes were distributed to their second-choice preferences: 50 percent of Begich’s second-choice votes went to Palin, while 28 percent went to Peltola.
In spite of the clear indication that the Republican party held a majority, Petola won the election after the second round of tabulation. Crucial to the outcome were the 11,000 ballots that ranked Begich alone, with no second choice — had even half of those ballots ranked Palin second, she would have won.
It was Palin’s eagerness to split the vote that ultimately upset the Republican party, not the voting system. But had Begich faced off against Palin in a traditional party primary, Palin would have been forced to debate important issues, and Begich could have appealed to Republican voters directly. Further, the Alaska Republican Party would have been able to send a clear message about the party’s direction. The open primary, far from promoting moderate candidates and reducing political polarization, allowed voters to ignore electability and vote for whoever pleased them — no matter how immoderate.
If Nevada voters approve Question 3, they can forget about having election night results. It took the Alaska Division of Elections two full weeks to tabulate the ranked-choice distribution. Afterward, the division provided the incomprehensible cast-vote record but claimed that “the division cannot help voters access or analyze the data.” In other words, citizens received a two-page summary of the results, but are unable to verify it themselves without some knowledge of computer programming. (READ MORE: Time for the GOP to Embrace Ranked-Choice Voting)
That leaves interpreting the outcomes up to advocates of ranked-choice voting like FairVote. The FairVote analysis lauds that the percentage of voters who ranked multiple candidates as their first choice was “on par with other RCV and non-RCV elections,” yet does not describe other types of errors, which may have been much higher. The FairVote report also claims that because 73 percent of voters ranked multiple candidates, there must have been an “understanding of [ranked-choice voting] and enthusiasm for using the ranked ballot.” That’s quite a sweeping conclusion.
The FairVote analysis reveals that in any scenario except the one that played out, Begich would have won. If Palin had been eliminated, 59 percent of second-choice votes would have gone to Begich and only 6 percent to Peltola. If Peltola had been eliminated, 63 percent of her votes would have been distributed to Begich and only 5 percent to Palin. Begich was clearly the consensus winner: he was the second choice of a majority of both Palin and Peltola voters.
This result reveals the paradox of preferential voting: ranking your favorite candidate first might actually harm their chances. Thus, the system perversely incentivizes voters to rank the weakest candidate of the other party as their first choice, thereby splitting the vote to eliminate the strongest opponent first. In November, that could mean Democrats rank Palin first so that, as the Wall Street Journal editorial board put it, “she can survive to lose to Peltola in the last round.”
FairVote’s claim that ranked-choice voting leads to “more choice, less ‘strategic’ voting,” hasn’t come true in Alaska. Requiring candidates, parties, and voters to strategize like game theorists is a bad recipe for a representative and transparent government. Nevada voters should think twice before they follow suit.
Sarah Montalbano is the Education Policy Analyst at Alaska Policy Forum and a contributor and Northwest Regional Leader with Young Voices. Her writing can be found in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, and Townhall.