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Republicans rage against ranked choice voting after Alaska election

Republicans are fuming about ranked choice and “jungle” primary voting systems after Democrat Mary Peltola won a special House election in Alaska over former Gov. Sarah Palin (R) and Republican Nick Begich.  

The race in The Last Frontier was the first federal test of the state’s unusual voting system that is gaining influence across the country. 

“Ranked-choice voting is a scam to rig elections,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) tweeted after results from Alaska’s special election showing Peltola won Wednesday. “60% of Alaska voters voted for a Republican, but thanks to a convoluted process and ballot exhaustion—which disenfranchises voters—a Democrat ‘won.’” 

Republican National Committee (RNC) national press secretary Emma Vaughn said in a statement that the Alaska special election results “prove what we’ve known all along — ranked-choice voting disenfranchises voters.” 

“Our Republican nominees earned nearly 60% of Alaskans’ votes on the ballot, and now every single one of those voters lost their voice to choose their representative in Congress. Alaskans deserve an equal and fair process, two things this special election were not,” Vaughn said. 

Tyler Bowyer, an RNC national committeeman from Arizona, told The Hill on Thursday that he plans to lead a resolution for the RNC to formally oppose ranked choice voting at the RNC’s next winter meeting at the start of 2023. 

In the Alaska system, voters pick one candidate in a nonpartisan jungle primary. Then the top four candidates head to the general election, where voters rank their choices. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, there is an automatic runoff where ballots for the candidate with the least votes are reallocated to the next-choice pick, if the voter made one.  

After independent Al Gross withdrew from the general election, the first round of the Alaska special election saw nearly 60 percent of voters choosing Palin and Begich. But when Begich’s votes were redistributed, only about half went to Palin, with Peltola getting around 29 percent of his first-round voters. Another fifth of his voters did not make a second-choice pick. 

Critics say that the ranked choice system is confusing — Palin called it “convoluted” after her loss on Wednesday night — but advocates point to an exit poll where 85 percent of Alaskan voters said the system was “simple.” 

Advocates for the system also argue that it gives more power to voters rather than to parties, disincentivizes negative campaigning and is a politically neutral system. And the system does have some support among Republicans. 

“The reason the party doesn’t like it is because it takes the decision about who the candidates are away from the party and gives it back to voters,” said consultant Robert Dillon, who previously worked for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “The parties naturally, you know, find that threatening, but voters don’t.” 

The system could also shield Murkowski, who voted to impeach former President Trump, from conservative blowback and help her win reelection this year, since she did not have to face Trump-endorsed challenger Kelly Tshibaka in a closed primary election. 

Bowyer, the Arizona RNC national committeeman, said that the system will ultimately lead to conservative factions of the Republican Party not being represented. 

“The reality is, it’s really a system of moderation,” Bowyer said, adding that the goal of many ranked choice advocates is to eliminate partisan primaries. “That is very destructive for the political parties. … What it does is essentially creates a uniparty or a single-party system, or a no-party system, when most of the public for a long time have always been advocates for more parties.” 

“It eliminates any possibility that someone that’s more conservative — and really, on the Democratic side, more progressive — can ever make it through that system,” Bowyer said. 

A GOP turn against ranked choice voting started in 2018, when former Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) lost to Democratic Rep. Jared Golden after a ranked choice system went into effect in Maine.

Poliquin had the most first-round votes, but after votes from independent candidates were reallocated, Golden crossed the 50 percent threshold. 

Cotton previously spoke out against the ranked choice voting system in 2020, when ranked choice advocates attempted a ballot measure to change the Arkansas system. He portrayed it as a scheme pushed by “out-of-state liberal billionaires” trying to make Arkansas “liberal, woke, and progressive.” 

“Jungle primaries with ranked-choice voting rob voters of a clear electoral choice,” Cotton said in a statement to The Hill. 

But the change is getting criticism from Democrats, too, as voters will consider a Nevada ballot initiative to impose a system similar to Alaska’s. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) both oppose the measure.  

Still, it may be too early to tell whether the system puts Republicans at a disadvantage. 

“The GOP is now 0-2 in 2 high-profile races decided in both states with RCV — ME-2 in 2018 and the Alaska House special. Does that mean RCV is biased against Republicans? I don’t really think so – the sample size is tiny,” Kyle Kondik, managing editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said in an email to The Hill.  

“It’s also not Democrats’ or RCV’s [ranked choice voting’s] fault that the 2 top Republicans running in Alaska, Begich and Palin, did not seem to do a good enough job of catering their campaigns to the system.” 

Republican digital strategist Eric Wilson says Republicans should not completely discount ranked choice voting, especially when it can be used in a closed nominating process rather than a nonpartisan jungle primary. He pointed to the Virginia Republican Party using a ranked choice–like nominating system last year, resulting in the nomination of Gov. Glenn Youngkin and the party’s first statewide wins in more than a decade. 

“What I’m trying to do is stand in front of the mob and say don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, because ranked choice voting is a very useful mechanism for Republicans, especially when it comes to Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment of ‘Thou shalt not speak ill of fellow Republicans,’” Wilson said. 

Updated 5:39 p.m.

Tags 2022 midterms Alaska house race Arizona Catherine Cortez Masto Lisa Murkowski Mary Peltola Mary Peltola Nick Begich Ranked choice voting RNC Sarah Palin Sarah Palin Steve Sisolak Tom Cotton Tom Cotton
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