Sarah Palin griped about ranked-choice voting before all the votes were counted in Alaska’s special US House election, where the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee was hoping to make a triumphal political comeback.
Now that those results have upended Palin’s plans and handed the seat to Democrat Mary Peltola, Palin’s furious with the system that has opened up Alaska’s political landscape and given Democrats hope that 2022 could be a much better midterm election year for the party than had been expected.
Rather than concede with grace and dignity—which no one should have expected from the politician whose embrace of conspiracy theories anticipated Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” approach to electioneering—Palin decried the state’s new ranked-choice voting system as “weird” and claimed that it had “disenfranchised” Alaskans by electing the first Democratic representative from Alaska since 1972. Pivoting toward a November general election race where she will again face Peltola and fellow Republican Nick Begich, Palin pledged that she would be “running to expose the strange things going on in our politics that are harming our nation and our state.”
But the only “strange” thing going on in Alaskan politics this year is the flourishing of democracy.
Voters weren’t disenfranchised by the RCV system that Alaskans approved in a 2020 referendum, as part of a broad reform initiative designed to overcome partisanship and assure that no one would be elected without the support of a majority of voters. The referendum replaced partisan primaries with the current system, where the top-four finishers in state and federal primaries—no matter their party—appear on the general election ballot.
Under the RCV system, which has been used in states across the country, and in countries around the world, voters rank candidates based on their preferences. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the initial count, the votes of weaker candidates are redistributed to stronger candidates until one of them secures a majority and is elected.
It is, as voters who have used the RCV invariably say, a simple and intuitive system that allows them to have a fuller say in elections.
That’s what happened in this year’s special election to fill the Alaska House seat that had been held for 49 years by the late Republican Representative Don Young. The primary picked four candidates—Democrat Peltola, Republicans Palin and Begich, and independent Al Gross. Gross, a former US Senate candidate who had significant appeal to Democrats, quit the contest after the primary, giving a boost to Peltola.
From the start of the special-election campaign, Palin ran a typically crude and divisive campaign that suggested she was less interested in representing Alaskans in Congress than in joining Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert, and Florida Representative Matt Gaetz on the wild-eyed fringe of American politics. In contrast, Peltola ran on the issues that have energized Democratic candidacies in special elections across the country this summer.
Peltola was unapologetically supportive of abortion rights, pro-labor, and enthusiastic about the Biden administration’s efforts to invest in infrastructure, health care, and education. She was, as well, a candidate who focused on local issues—such as rebuilding salmon resources on the Kuskokwim River—and proudly declared, “I’m not a millionaire. I’m not an international celebrity.”
Now, Peltola will be the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress, and the first woman to represent the state in the US House.
In other words, Peltola ran as an appealing, mainstream candidate in a state that, while it has not backed a Democrat for president since 1964, has over the years elected a number of Democrats and independents to statewide posts. Alaska also has a history of expecting its sole representative in the US House to be more interested in getting things done than in wowing audiences on Fox News.
Alaskans remembered that in 2009—after bidding for the vice presidency as Republican John McCain’s “hockey mom” running mate—Palin quit Alaska’s governorship before her term was done, and then showed up as the host of a series of reality-TV shows. That impressed Donald Trump, another reality-TV star, who endorsed Palin. But Alaskans were looking for alternatives.
While Palin offered voters celebrity, both Peltola and conservative Republican Begich offered substance. After Begich finished third, the question was whether a significant number of voters would loosen their partisan ties and back a Democrat.
The answer was yes. According to an analysis by the group Fair Vote, “Mary Peltola led by nine points among first choice preferences, and also earned enough second-choice rankings to hold on to her lead. Peltola clearly had deep support, evidenced by her strong first-choice lead, and broad support, evidenced by her ability to earn second-choices from Begich supporters.” Fifty percent of Begich backers ranked Palin as their second choice, but a striking 29 percent gave their preference to Peltola. Another 21 percent made no second pick.
What that added up to was a roughly 5,000-vote victory for Peltola. She won 51.5 percent of the vote.
What that means is that Alaska’s election system gave the majority of voters in the state the power to elect the candidate they wanted. That candidate wasn’t Sarah Palin. That candidate was Mary Peltola.