| Blake Hounshell, Charles Homans | The New York Times |
Mary Peltola, whose victory in a special election on Wednesday makes her the first Democrat in nearly half a century to represent Alaska in the House, won the contest for the remainder of Representative Don Young’s term with an upbeat campaign that appealed to Alaskan interests and the electorate’s independent streak.
But Alaska’s new voting system also played a big role in Ms. Peltola’s three-percentage-point victory over former Gov. Sarah Palin, her Republican opponent.
We’re in a democracy, but our general elections are meaningless in 85 percent of cases.
Ms. Peltola, who will become the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress and the first woman to hold the House seat, won at least in part because voters had more choices. While more voters initially picked a Republican candidate, that didn’t matter. Given a second choice, many Republican voters opted for a Democrat — Ms. Peltola — over Ms. Palin.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday night, Ms. Palin criticized the new voting system as “weird.” Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas called the system a “scam to rig elections” against Republicans.
But proponents of systems like Alaska’s say this is how it is supposed to work. When voters have more choices, they’re less likely to vote along strict party lines, reducing polarization and giving independent-minded or more centrist candidates a better shot.
The changes to how Alaskans choose their representatives in state and federal elections were decided on in 2020, when allies of Lisa Murkowski — the state’s senior senator, who ran in 2010 as a write-in candidate after losing that year’s Republican Party primary — promoted and bankrolled a ballot initiative that passed by a narrow margin — precisely 3,781 votes, out of more than 344,000.
The consequences for Alaskan politics, and for the country, could be seismic. New York, Maine and Utah also have some form of ranked-choice voting, as do dozens of American cities. But the Alaska approach — which combines ranked-choice voting across party lines with an instant runoff between several top candidates — goes further in disrupting political parties’ influence.
In the first stage of the complex new system, voters in a primary pick from a list of candidates from all parties and ideological stripes.
The top four finishers then make the ballot for the general election, when voters rank up to four choices in order of preference: first, second, third and fourth — or none at all.
Over multiple rounds of what is known as instant runoff or ranked-choice voting, election officials first eliminate candidates with no chance of winning and then reallocate the second, third and fourth choices of their voters to others.
Nicholas Begich III, a Republican, failed to meet the threshold, meaning his votes were reallocated based on their second choices. But 15,000 voters who preferred Mr. Begich crossed party lines to select Ms. Peltola as their backup pick instead of Ms. Palin. A further 11,000 Begich voters opted for no second choice or another candidate. In total, that meant that nearly half of Mr. Begich’s voters, presumably Republicans, did not vote for Ms. Palin.
Scott Kendall, a leading proponent of the Alaska system, said in an interview on Thursday: “The campaign that Nick Begich ran was a clinic in how to have your party lose a ranked-choice election.”
Alaska’s new system is the brainchild of Katherine Gehl, the founder and chairwoman of the nonpartisan Institute for Political Innovation.
Ms. Gehl is a onetime Young Republican and Ross Perot voter who also served on Barack Obama’s campaign finance committee in 2008. She left the Democratic Party over the 2012 effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, in her native Wisconsin and now describes herself as “politically homeless.” After several years of working with centrist policy organizations, she was inspired to turn her attention to the election system by a 2012 book, “The Parties vs. the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans,” by Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman turned political reform advocate.
Ms. Gehl sold her family business — she had been the chief executive of a food manufacturer in Wisconsin — and in 2015 dedicated herself and her personal wealth to exploring electoral reform options. She focused on alternatives to the two-party primary system, which she came to view as the root of the problem.
“We’re in a democracy, but our general elections are meaningless in 85 percent of cases,” she said. “And we act like that’s normal.”
She championed a system that combined typical ranked-choice voting with a runoff among the top four finalists, later expanding to a “final five” system. Ms. Gehl enlisted Michael E. Porter, a Harvard Business School professor, to co-write a 2017 paper and later a book arguing for the policy.
One of the paper’s early readers was Mr. Kendall, a lawyer who had worked as legal counsel for Ms. Murkowski during her 2010 Senate re-election campaign. In that race, Ms. Murkowski lost her primary to Joe Miller, a Tea Party favorite supported by Ms. Palin.
Mr. Miller’s candidacy was viewed at the time as a test of the Tea Party’s power to purge the Republican Party of insufficiently ideological politicians. But Ms. Murkowski, running as a write-in candidate, managed to defeat Mr. Miller in the general election, when Democrats and independent voters were able to weigh in.
In retrospect, the 2010 race showcased the particular advantages of a voting system like Ms. Gehl’s for a candidate like Ms. Murkowski, a broadly popular politician in a state whose voters overwhelmingly choose Republicans — but who rarely registered as such.
In 2020, Mr. Kendall spearheaded an effort to put an election reform measure similar to Ms. Gehl’s system on the ballot in Alaska. At the time, Mr. Kendall argued that low-turnout party primaries too often allowed “10 percent of the most extreme or most partisan constituents in a district” to determine the winners.” He added that these partisans want zero cooperation with the other side, “and that’s part of the problem: retribution for doing the things that we would actually expect and hope that our public officials do.”
Mr. Kendall, who helped draft the language of the 2020 ballot measure and defended it in court, now runs a super PAC supporting Ms. Murkowski’s candidacy along with Mike Pawlowski, one of her former chiefs of staff.
The election reform passed that November, a victory that Ms. Gehl, who donated to and raised money for the Alaska measure, said she saw it as the first step toward her goal of having “final five” voting systems in place in five states by 2024 — “which would mean having 10 senators who have been freed from the tyranny of the party primary.”
Ms. Gehl has worked with groups in two states, Nevada and Missouri, to get similar measures on the ballot this November, which have faced resistance from both parties. In Missouri, Republicans fought against a ranked-choice ballot measure, which in August failed to get enough signatures to make the November ballot.
In Nevada, Ms. Gehl has contributed more than $1 million to a campaign for a similar measure, which has drawn opposition from Democratic officials and lawsuits from prominent Democratic election lawyers, including Marc Elias, the former Hillary Clinton and Joseph R. Biden campaign attorney. But the State Supreme Court ruled in June that the ballot measure could proceed, and it received enough signatures to qualify for the ballot in July. A poll by The Nevada Independent and OH Predictive Insights in August found that respondents supported it by a 15-point margin.
Some political scientists have questioned the idea that it’s the primary system, not the voters, creating polarized politics.
“There’s this good-government, Mugwump reformers’ fantasy that if you have nonpartisan elections, you’ll have these reasonable, rational voters that will emerge and elect reasonable, moderate candidates,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. “But that has never, ever happened.”