Alaska voters cast ballots in special House election in state’s first ranked choice contest

The state’s new system is getting national attention and stirring debate, but Alaska voters seem unfazed by it

By: - August 16, 2022 10:21 pm
Voters walk toward the door of the Division of Elections' Anchorage office on Aug. 15. Early voting traffic was brisk at the midtown office. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Voters seeking to cast early ballots walk toward the Alaska Division of Elections' Anchorage office on Aug. 15. The division has made special efforts to educate Alaskans about the new ranked-choice voting system that was first used for the special election to fill the remainder of the late U.S. Rep. Don Young's term. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska voters on Tuesday completed an experiment that has drawn national attention – a ranked choice election for the person who will fill out the U.S. House term of the late Don Young.

The special election to choose the person who will fill the remaining four months of Young’s term came down to three candidates listed on one side of the ballots due Tuesday evening.

While one side of the ballot listed candidates running in the normal “pick-one” primary, now an open and nonpartisan contest, the flip side offered voters the chance to rank up to four candidates.

Republican Nick Begich waves at motorists passing through Midtown Anchorage during rush hour on Aug. 16. Begich is one of three listed candidates competing in the state's first ranked-choice election. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Republican Nick Begich waves at motorists passing through Midtown Anchorage during rush hour on Aug. 16. Begich is one of three listed candidates competing in the state’s first ranked-choice election. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Former Gov. Sarah Palin and businessman Nick Begich were the Republicans listed, and former legislator Mary Peltola was the lone Democrat listed. Independent Al Gross would have been among the four, but he dropped out of the race. The ballot did include a space for a write-in candidate, where Inupiat leader Tara Sweeney, was hoping voters would fill in her name.

The ranked choice system narrowly approved by voters in 2020 has sparked some fierce debate outside of Alaska.

There are plenty of fans.

“Alaska’s `Final Four’ voting can be a model for the nation,” reads the headline of a guest column penned by representatives of a ranked choice-promoting business group that ran Monday in the political publication The Hill.

“This is how we free ourselves to have our leaders answer to us rather than the extremes and insiders,” former presidential candidate Andrew Yang said in a June 28 Tweet.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, now a candidate for U.S. House, is seen Saturday, July 9, 2022, during a campaign rally hosted by former President Donald Trump. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, now a candidate for U.S. House, is seen Saturday, July 9, 2022, during a campaign rally hosted by former President Donald Trump. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

And there are many foes, perhaps most prominent of which is former President Donald Trump. He blasted the new system when he came to Anchorage to campaign for Palin and for Kelly Tshibaka, a challenger to Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

“It’s a total rigged deal,” he said during his July 9 rally for his endorsed candidates.

Also opposed is the Alaska Policy Forum, a conservative organization.  The new system “makes a joke of Alaska politics,” said the headline a guest column in the Wall Street Journal written by Sarah Montalbano, a research associate with the group.

Voters casting ballots in Anchorage on Tuesday, whatever their views on ranked choice voting, seemed to be taking the change in stride.

Sharon Gilbert, who voted at Spring Hill Elementary School in South Anchorage, said she ranked all three names on that side of the ballot.

“I’d like the person I voted No. 3 to know I ranked third for her,” Gilbert said. That was Palin, she said. “I want her to know she was third in my world.”

Mary Peltola, Democratic candidate for U.S. House, speaks at an event in Juneau on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Mary Peltola, Democratic candidate for U.S. House, speaks at an event in Juneau on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Palin was “way down the line in mine,” chimed in Laurel Gregory, who was with Gilbert at the polling place. Gregory said she ranked the other two candidates, though she did not disclose the order of her ranking.

The ranked choice system “was pretty simple,” she said. “It’s fine with me.”

Judith White, voting at Rogers Park Elementary School in Midtown Anchorage, said she ranked Begich first and Palin second – even though she dislikes the system.

“It’s certainly easy enough to do. But I think it’s a very bad idea,” she said. “I think, also, it’s unconstitutional, because I think state legislatures are supposed to set the rules.”

Some voters rejected ranking candidates. Anchorage resident William Geest said Sarah Palin was the only candidate who he supported.

“I don’t think that’s the way it should be done,” Geest said of the new system. “I like old-style voting.”

Sweeney's name was not on the ballot for the special election to serve out the rest of Don Young's term, but she has mounted a write-in campaign. She is focusing on the upcoming contest for the full two-year term, she said. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Tara Sweeney, candidate for U.S. House, waves signs in Anchorage on Aug. 16. Sweeney was with a group of supporters at the intersection of Northern Lights and Seward, a popular spot for political rallies and demonstrations. Sweeney’s name was not on the ballot for the special election to serve out the rest of Don Young’s term, but she has mounted a write-in campaign. She is focusing on the upcoming contest for the full two-year term, she said. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Geest said he’d like the state to return to the previous system.

Jerry Ward, a former state legislator and Palin campaign adviser, declined to pass judgment on the new system.

“It’s the law of the land,” he said, sitting in Palin’s campaign office in South Anchorage.

What may be annoying, he said, will be the long wait to calculate the results under the new system. “Now we’re going to wait till next month to find out who won,” he said.

The Alaska Division of Elections has put a lot of effort into educating voters about the new system, said public relations manager Tiffany Montemayor.  Along with mass mailings, there were mock elections that allowed Alaskans to practice the system conducted both by the division, as well as efforts by other organizations.

“We’ve done a lot of educational things, and I think they were all successful in different ways because they all reached different communities,” Montemayor said.

Former Gov. Bill Walker and his wife Donna wave campaign signs on Aug. 15 at the intersection of Northern Lights Boulevard and the Seward Highway in Anchorage. Walker is a fan of the state’s new ranked-choice system. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

One of the most famous was an online 2021 contest organized by the division that allowed voters to select their favorite Alaska seafood. In early results, the lowly pollock appeared to be leading, but ultimately king crab was the winner.

Another successful effort, Montemayor said, was the division’s youth art contest, in which a ranked-choice voting system was used to select designs for voter information pamphlets and voting stickers. There were close to 200 entries in all, she said.

Even before the first votes in the U.S. House race were counted on Tuesday, candidates for other offices were preparing for their own ranked choice elections in November.

Amid Monday afternoon rush-hour traffic, gubernatorial candidates Les Gara and Bill Walker shared the Midtown Anchorage corner most favored for sign-waving. Gara, a former state legislator, and Walker, a former governor, are vying for much of the same center-left slide of the electorate, and both said positive things Monday about the ranked-choice system.

Gubernatorial candidate Les Gara, with supporters, stands at the corner of Northern Lights and the Seward Highway on the afternoon of Aug. 15 waving to passing motorists. Gara’s wife Kelly is pictured at his left, helping to hold a large campaign sign. Gara said the ranked-choice system makes it easier for voters to follow their consciences instead of trying to vote strategically. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Walker, an independent, said he is a big fan.

“More choice is better,” he said, in between waving at passing motorists. “It kind of levels the playing field a little bit. It takes control away from the party, which is not a bad thing. Of course, I’m non-party, so that’s what I would say.”

Gara, a Democrat, admitted that he had mixed feelings about the new system and that he voted against the ballot initiative that created it. But he said it presents some important advantages.

“I think the good thing about it is it lets you vote your conscience. You don’t have to do math and say, ‘Who’s got the best chance?’ You just vote your conscience, first, second, third, fourth,” he said.

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Yereth Rosen
Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen came to Alaska in 1987 to work for the Anchorage Times. She has been reporting on Alaska news ever since, covering stories ranging from oil spills to sled-dog races. She has reported for Reuters, for the Alaska Dispatch News, for Arctic Today and for other organizations. She covers environmental issues, energy, climate change, natural resources, economic and business news, health, science and Arctic concerns -- subjects with a lot of overlap. In her free time, she likes to ski and watch her son's hockey games.

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