How Mary Peltola Beat Sarah Palin in Alaska’s Special Election

This past spring, Alaska voters received, by mail, a choice of forty-eight candidates in an open primary to fill the congressional seat of Don Young, who died in his forty-ninth year in office. In June, the top four candidates, irrespective of their party, advanced to an August 16th election where the winner would be decided by a process in which voters ranked candidates in the order of their preference, instead of picking one. On Wednesday night, more than two weeks after the primary, the Alaska Division of Elections unveiled the results, on a grainy Facebook Live stream that kept freezing. The winner would only finish out Young’s term in Congress, and the three remaining candidates—the Democrat Mary Peltola and the Republicans Nick Begich and Sarah Palin—were already full-speed-ahead campaigning for the actual two-year seat, which will be decided in an election this November. A candidate forum in Anchorage was cut short when organizers realized that the results were about to come out. Mary Peltola, a Yupik Eskimo from Bush Alaska, defeated Palin in the final count. Deep-red Alaska’s one House seat now belongs to a Democrat.

Alaskans approved ranked-choice voting in a 2020 ballot measure that passed with fifty-one per cent of the vote. The system, at least in the minds of its creators, is designed to reduce polarization and partisanship. In the run-up to the special election, architects of the measure tended to describe it in simple, almost childproof terms: “You’re at the ice-cream store, and you want strawberry, but they’re out of strawberry, so you get vanilla.” When I was in Alaska for the primary, the state director of Americans for Prosperity used a box of props to demonstrate how R.C.V. worked, and drag queens staged a mock election in a coffee shop. After the primary votes came in, a candidate for the state house had to call the department of elections because his campaign couldn’t figure out whether he was still in the race. “It’s trying to improve democracy, and there’s a tremendous amount of academic support for the fact that it does advance democracy,” Gregg Erickson, an Alaska economist who studies ranked-choice voting, told me. “But ranked-choice voting is fiendishly complicated. I’m one of the people who follows this pretty closely, and I’m still really confused.”

Ranked-choice voting aspires to stifle the ascent of extreme candidates by, among other things, holding nonpartisan primaries. “Forcing us to choose between the two parties automatically truncates the choices,” Scott Kendall, one of the lawyers who authored the ballot reform, told me. More than sixty per cent of Alaskans don’t affiliate with any major party, and the state has a long history of electing independent governors and senators through write-in campaigns. “The word ‘primary’ is used as a verb now—as a threat,” Rebecca Braun, a former Alaska policy adviser, told me. “If you have a moderate Republican who is working in a bipartisan way, the Party will say, we’re going to primary you.” Ranked-choice voting, she went on, “allows you to vote for your actual favorite candidate and then hedge your bet.”

Proponents of the practice hope Alaska can be a microcosm for the rest of the country. “We truly have almost no party system,” Kendall told me. “There are only around seven hundred thousand of us in Alaska. Relationships come into play, and the more local you get, the less partisan. A Republican might say, You know what, my kids play basketball with Mary [Peltola’s] kids, or a Democrat might say, I remember when Sarah Palin did x back when she was governor, and I liked that.” As Jason Grenn, the executive director of Alaskans for Better Elections, put it, “Alaska’s like one small town, so a lot of the time it’s the person, not the party.” In an open primary, he added, candidates are incentivized to cross party lines: “Maybe you’ve never knocked on a Republican door before, but guess what, now you have to. You’ve never talked to a liberal in your life, but it’s time.” Larry Persily, a frequent commentator on Alaska politics, told me, “it gives people permission to vote their heart.” For instance: “I don’t like Biden, but I care about fishing.”

Palin, of course, complicated all of this. In a system designed to “fight polarization,” she was a uniquely polarizing candidate for Alaska in 2022, endorsed by Donald Trump and returning to state politics after quitting as governor more than a decade ago. (At a rally in Anchorage, in July, Trump said, “You never know who won in ranked choice. You could be in third place and they announce that you won the election. It’s a total rigged deal.”) The question hanging over the final count was, when the second tally happened, would Begich’s votes combine with Palin’s to give the celebrity Republican a surprise win? Michael Carey, the former editorial-page editor of the Anchorage Daily News, told me that “if Palin had won this election, there would be many people, especially Democrats, who will be telling R.C.V. supporters that we were promised stable, even-handed governments, and here we have one of the most divisive people in Alaska and America. That would be really hard to overcome.” He went on, “it certainly takes unusual circumstances to elect a Democrat in Alaska. It’s very hard to win as a Democrat.” Second-choice votes in the ranked tabulation ultimately cemented Peltola’s lead over Palin.

Peltola’s victory may mean that voters are willing to stick with the system for the time being. When I called the congresswoman-elect after her win on Wednesday night, she was in a conference room at a co-working space, and friends occasionally burst in to hug and congratulate her. It happened to be her forty-ninth birthday. Back in April, Peltola was a virtually unknown salmon advocate, and tribal fish director. “This race showed that Alaskans have an appetite for someone who isn’t partisan, and for campaigns that are positive,” she told me. “I’m optimistic about ranked-choice voting—it certainly made this possible.” She went on, “This also speaks to the risk of labelling people and parties. Alaskans and Americans are, by and large, very middle-of-the-road. We tend to elect people based on the person, not the party.” Though the victory for a Democrat is historic, Peltola seemed to be working with ranked-choice voting’s playbook of downplaying the importance of the party: “Alaskans are, by and large, conservative. I certainly wouldn’t call myself a liberal.”

The Republican Party was, for the most part, deeply opposed to ranked-choice voting, casting it as a crooked progressive plot. And the confusion surrounding it, even if genuine, played into their messaging: as Erickson, the economist, put it, “they say, This just shows how the bureaucracy and the coastal élites are rigging our elections in ways you can’t possibly understand.” Palin had called ranked-choice voting a “convoluted newfangled system” that leaves Alaskans “frustrated, confused, and discouraged” and allows “Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi to lock up the state.” Tom Cotton, the Republican senator from Arkansas, called Peltola’s victory “a scam.” But it’s not just Republicans who are skeptical. “The organized political parties see it as a real threat,” Erickson said. “If you’re a Democratic Party functionary or official, you might hate it.” To some critics, the two-party system is fundamental to American democracy. John Lindback, who, as a former chief of staff to Alaska’s lieutenant governor, once had administrative oversight over the state’s elections, told me, “The ranked-choice people jump in after every controversy and they say, We have the answer for you. Now the cure is, we’re going to bring moderation back to American politics. But there’s absolutely nothing to indicate that will be the case.”

So what does Peltola’s surprise victory mean for the future of ranked-choice voting? Maybe not much—it’ll take several election cycles to measure whether it has any impact on the current dysfunction of U.S. electoral politics. “Ranked choice could decrease polarization, or in trying to find a middle ground it could push people further right or left,” Erickson told me. In November, Alaska will hold more than sixty ranked-choice elections. The test now is whether these lofty-sounding ideas—to court moderates, to build cross-partisan coalitions, to move past fixation on party labels—will play out in practice, or just further demoralize and baffle voters. In the meantime, it certainly adds to the political theatre. “It’s provided a hobby for political pundits and election watchers,” Persily, the political commentator, said. “Now, with the wait for results, the Band-Aid gets pulled off slowly, and you can keep wondering—is the next tug going to reveal something?” He continued, “It’s inside baseball. Most people have more to think about than how many Begich supporters will pick Palin for their second choice. School started and there’s a shortage of bus drivers. Among politicos, a lot of e-mails are going back and forth theorizing which way it’s going to go. The general public is just sort of, like, O.K., let me know when it’s over.” After all, it’s just a four-month term, he said. “And now, the whole thing starts all over again.” ♦

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