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Alaska voters adopt ranked-choice voting in ballot initiative

The voting reform measure is meant to combat polarization and increase voter choice.

Hands holding a ballot with some choices filled in.
Voters in Alaska have approved ranked-choice voting.
Brianna Soukup/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

In a tight vote that came down to about 4,000 ballots, Alaskans approved a measure to join Maine in conducting their elections using ranked-choice voting by approving the ballot initiative Measure 2.

Measure 2 makes sweeping changes to how Alaska administers elections. Instead of two primaries, in which each political party nominates a candidate for the general election in November, the state will hold one open primary from which the top four candidates, regardless of party affiliation, proceed to the general election.

Ranked-choice voting lets voters list the candidates in order of preference.

“This is a victory for all Alaskans regardless of their political leaning,” Shea Siegert, manager of the Yes on 2 for Better Elections campaign, said in a statement Wednesday. “We now have an electoral system that lives up to Alaska’s independent streak by saying ‘to hell with politics let’s do what is right for Alaska.’”

Alaska’s outcome was a victory for voting reform campaigners, who have argued that changing how we vote might address hyperpartisanship and polarization while giving third-party candidates a better chance at elected office. Opponents have warned it could be a logistical headache, though so far the cities and states that have adopted ranked-choice voting have conducted their elections without major problems. Massachusetts considered a similar law this November but rejected it.

Ranked-choice voting works like this: Instead of just picking one of the candidates on the ballot, you rank them from most preferred to least preferred. While it is new in the United States, it has been successfully used for a century in Australia and in Ireland.

The idea is that this allows voters to choose their favorite possible candidate. Most of the United States has what’s called a first-past-the-post electoral system, where the candidate who receives the most votes becomes president. First-past-the-post systems incentivize strategic voting (voting not for your favorite candidate but for your preferred candidate with a real shot at victory), and they have driven the rise of a two-party system like the one in the US.

And while first-past-the-post voting systems are not the only factor that has led to the two-party system or to the increasing polarization of America, they’ve certainly contributed. First-past-the-post systems mean third-party candidates rarely win, even if many voters prefer them; each voter expects that voting for a third party constitutes “throwing away” their vote.

Imagine a person were deciding between President Donald Trump, Democratic candidate Joe Biden, Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins, and Libertarian Party candidate Jo Jorgensen. Our hypothetical voter likes both Hawkins and Jorgensen better than Biden but would prefer Biden win than Trump.

Under first-past-the-post voting — the voting system most Americans voted with this election — our hypothetical voter might feel forced to vote for Biden. Under ranked-choice voting, they would list (for example) Hawkins first, Jorgensen second, Biden third, and Trump fourth. When ballots are counted, the ballot counters will eliminate the candidate with the fewest first-place votes and “move” their vote to their second-place candidate.

You can see how it works on this ballot from Maine, which conducted the first-ever general statewide election with ranked-choice voting this November.

David Sharp/AP Photo

As a result, third-party candidates get more votes because voters don’t feel like they’re throwing their vote away by supporting them. And the process generally favors candidates whom lots of voters find acceptable over polarizing candidates whom many voters hate.

“Ranked-choice voting rewards candidates who can appeal most broadly because candidates compete to be voters’ second and third choices as well as their first,” voting reform expert Lee Drutman wrote for Vox in 2019. Studies find that in areas with ranked-choice voting, campaigns are more civil. Ranked-choice voting might also increase representation of women and minorities, who seem to benefit when the electoral conditions encourage coalition building.

That’s a particularly big deal in Alaska, where independents account for 57 percent of registered voters but hold only three seats in the state legislature.

Another implication of Ballot Measure 2 is that Alaska’s moderate Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski, is in less danger of being primaried from the right — which is what happened in 2010, when a more conservative Republican won the party’s nomination, forcing Murkowski to run an unprecedented successful write-in campaign to keep her seat. In a ranked-choice voting system, Murkowski only needs to be one of the top four candidates in the primary to advance to the general election.

A growing conversation about how we vote

Ranked-choice voting is used all over the world, but until two decades ago — when San Francisco adopted it — it was rarely used or discussed in the US.

US election experts, concerned about growing polarization and voter disenchantment, began encouraging other cities and states to adopt it. It did nicely in San Francisco, and other cities signed on. Eventually, the movement hit the national stage: In 2018, Maine became the first state to adopt ranked-choice voting. In 2019, New York City signed on as well. In the 2020 election cycle, presidential candidates Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bennet endorsed it.

These early adopters allow us a window into some important questions about ranked-choice voting. In particular, critics have worried it will be harder for the election office to tabulate and that it will confuse voters or lead to more spoiled ballots.

No such problems were reported in this year’s ranked-choice primaries, and ranked-choice voting works fine in many other countries. But Maine’s high statewide turnout in the 2020 general election represented the system’s first time in the spotlight for most Americans. With both Maine and Alaska now using ranked-choice voting, this method of conducting elections will have a chance to prove that it works — or that it doesn’t — in combating the rising tide of polarization.

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