Alaska Gov. Bill Walker shook up his re-election campaign on Oct. 19, with fewer than 20 days remaining before voters head to the polls: He dropped out of the race.
The independent governor’s sudden decision could cause chaos. After all, Walker’s name still will be on the ballot. Thousands of absentee ballots have been distributed. Early voting is about to begin.
Walker, however, probably wanted to simplify the choice before voters. Polls suggest that former state senator Mike Dunleavy, a conservative Republican, held a commanding lead over Walker and a Democratic challenger, former Anchorage mayor and U.S. Sen. Mark BegichMark Peter Begich11 former Democratic senators call for 'meaningful reform to Senate rules' Harry Reid, political pugilist and longtime Senate majority leader, dies Alaska Senate race sees cash surge in final stretch MORE.
Walker threw his support behind Begich as he exited. The independent is a former Republican, but his prize legislative accomplishment is expanding Medicaid in Alaska through ObamaCare, which Begich supports but Dunleavy could repeal.
The governor, then, made a simple calculation: Polls showed Dunleavy in the mid-40s and both Begich and Walker in the mid-20s. If both of them remained in the race, Dunleavy would claim the office. If Walker departed, and voters followed his lead, Begich stood an outside chance of protecting the governor’s signature achievement.
Some might commend Walker for his decision. After all, he refused to play the spoiler, and put protecting the health care of tens of thousands of Alaskans over his own political future. We don’t expect politicians to choose self-sacrifice these days.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t have to be this way. Our politics need not be limited to two options. We need not worry that expanding choices — something we ordinarily celebrate, with good reason — will lead to victories by more extreme candidates of ether side who capture intense support from a small base.
The answer is ranked choice voting (RCV), a system that mimics an instant-runoff, but all in one low-cost, high-turnout election. It’s simple: Instead of selecting one candidate, voters rank all three. A growing number of voters — from Maine to San Francisco and Santa Fe — have chosen to conduct ranked-choice elections this year and reaped the benefits of extra choice without the fear of an unpopular spoiler sneaking into office.
Maine, for example, will use RCV this fall to elect its U.S. senator, two members of Congress, and other important offices. Voters demanded a new system after nine of the past 11 gubernatorial elections ended with a winner who earned less than 50 percent of the vote. Ranked choice puts an end to plurality winners. In Maine, San Francisco and elsewhere, it has been credited with more civil campaigns; some candidates have even endorsed each other as second choice and run as a team.
If Alaska used ranked choice voting, Walker could have stayed in the race without worrying that he and Begich would tip the election to Dunleavy. No one plays the spoiler. The candidate who comes in third is simply eliminated. His votes would get immediately reallocated to the voters’ second choice. If all Begich and Dunleavy backers selected the other candidate as their second choice, he’d win. If Dunleavy amassed enough second-choice votes to claim victory, however, he’d take office with a majority and a mandate, not a weak plurality. He’d be able to govern knowing that he had the support of more than 50 percent of voters.
After all, if an office is ordering pizza and two people want pepperoni, two want sausage, and two others prefer mushroom — but three like anchovy best — those three people shouldn’t win out and dictate what the other six eat.
Walker likely saved Alaskans from being led by a governor who was not the choice of a majority of voters. But Walker shouldn’t have needed to remove the choice of re-electing him — and shouldn’t have been forced to short-circuit an election before many voters even had begun to pay attention. With RCV, voters could have made that important decision themselves.
We deserve better politics, more meaningful elections, more robust choices — and lunches free from anchovies.