Alaska’s ranked-choice primary could work here

Sarah Smallhouse via Arizona Capitol Times

Recently, Alaskan voters spoke and rejected former Gov. Sarah Palin as their state’s only congressional representative.

Today, the country is wondering how such a recognized Republican could have lost in a state where Republicans have held their congressional seat for decades. Here’s how: a majority of Alaskan voters voted to install her opponent in a ranked choice instant run-off election. Mary Pertola prevailed because over 50% of Alaskans voted for her.

In Arizona’s August primary, Republican voters elected nominees for US Senate, governor, secretary of state and attorney general. None of those nominees won with more than 46% of their own party’s votes, which constitutes less than a third of Arizona voters overall. The Republican attorney general candidate won with only 33.6%! In Arizona, 75% of state primary winners face no general election opposition – or if they do, it is weak because of differences in voter registration numbers in their district. In those districts it is the primary voters who seat the district representatives.

Alaska has adopted an instant run-off system that requires candidates to get a majority of the state’s votes to win. Doesn’t that make sense: you must win a majority of votes to win — 50% plus one?

In Alaska, all voters choose their preferred candidate from all parties on the primary election ballot. Then the top four vote-getters (no matter their party affiliation or lack thereof) move onto the general election ballot. Political parties don’t control anyone’s choice – any voter can vote for any candidate.

In the general election, voters rank the candidates: top choice gets the first-place vote, second choice the second vote, and so on down to their fourth choice. It is essentially like a series of elections, but people only have to vote once. When the ranked votes are tallied, if no candidate gets a majority of the first-place votes, the last place candidate is eliminated. Voters who chose that eliminated candidate have their second-place votes reallocated to the remaining candidates in the second count. If there is a candidate with over 50% after the second count, that person is the winner. This process continues until somebody has a majority of the vote.

In Alaska in the first round of vote tallying, Pertola received 39% of first choice voters, Palin got 31% and Nick Begich III, 28%. (The fourth-place candidate had dropped out after the primary and endorsed Pertola.) In the second round, Begich was eliminated and voters who had chosen Begich as their first choice had their second-choice votes counted. Those results put Pertola at 51% and Palin at 48.5%. Alaskans spoke and the candidate who represents a majority of Alaskan voters has been seated in Congress. Fairness prevailed.

Instant run-off elections also have a positive affect on the way campaigns are run. Going forward, Congresswoman Pertola is accountable to all Alaskans, not just a small number of partisans (as is too often the case in Arizona). This means she must address the concerns of a broad spectrum of Alaskans as she governs.

Alaska’s new system is truly democracy in action. Maybe we could make this work in Arizona.

Sarah Smallhouse is president of Save Democracy AZ.