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Joaqlin Estus
ICT

Alaska is trying out a new voting system.

While it’s relatively untested, early indications are that it can be difficult to use ranked choice voting to its greatest effect.

The system is used in only one other state, Maine, but has been used in municipal elections in San Francisco and New York.

The situation in Alaska is further complicated by the fact that two elections are overlapping.

A special election is underway to fill the last two months of the late Don Young’s term. Alaska’s sole Congress member died unexpectedly in March. Another election will be held for the position’s next two-year term, which starts in January.

The primaries in the special and general election are open. That is, voters can cast one vote for the candidate of any party. The top four candidates’ names are placed on the general election ballot.

The primary for the special election was held in June and the top four vote-getters were to get their names on the special election ballot, except one of them dropped out. That leaves Republicans Nick Begich and Sarah Palin and Democrat Mary Peltola, who is Yup’ik. (Another Alaska Native, Tara Sweeney, Inupiaq, placed 5th in the primary). The top three will be running in the special election.

They are also among more than two dozen candidates in the primary for the general election (remember, for the 2-year term?). Voters will go to the polls on August 16 for the special general election and for the primary in the general election.

If no one wins, that is, if no one gets 50 percent plus one of the votes in the first go-around, the person in last place is dropped. The Division of Elections adds in the second choice ballots. If no one still gets 50 percent of the ballots plus one, the division counts third then fourth place votes.

Related:
Alaska Natives ready for a Native candidate to step forward
Alaska Natives running in crowded congressional race
Alaska Native candidate holds on in US House special primary

Michele Sparck, Yup’ik, director of Get Out the Native Vote in Alaska, said with ranked choice voting, people are able to keep their voice in the process.

“If your favorite candidate doesn't make it, at least you have a say in who you could live with conceptually as your next potential lawmaker. So, I think if we explain it to our people that it's an instant runoff process – we don't have to go through another election again – then I think people will start to embrace it,” Sparck said.

Some observers have speculated whether there’s a way to game the system to increase the chances of your favored candidate winning.

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“Vote for your favorite person first and always,” Sparck said. Voting for the weaker of the other candidates as your first choice so your favored candidate faces him or her in the runoff, can “backfire on you” if your favored candidate loses in the first round, she said.

A larger concern to Sparck is that in the mail-in primary “we had almost a 20 percent rejection rate in the Bethel area and all parts rural. It's really painful to think that we lost that kind of voice and influence and impact on the race’s standings.” The mail-in ballots required the signature of a witness.

That won’t be the case in the upcoming special general election. It’s being held in person.

Also, “all kinds of groups are here to assist the Native community in the voting process. So if you're intimidated by it, I understand. We get it. We understand because super voters are confused too. So there's no harm in asking and reaching out to trusted sources to get a better idea on how to make your vote count,” she said.

Stephen Pettigrew said it’s unclear if other claims about the benefits of ranked choice voting bear out. He’s director of data science at the University of Pennsylvania program on opinion research and election studies, and works the NBC News Decision Desk.

Poll AK Cong

One claim has been that in ranked choice voting candidates will avoid negative campaigning because they don’t want to alienate the people who might vote for them as their second choice.

“There's been a bit of academic political science research on sort of some of these questions about how much it does things like sort of tone down campaigns and make it more likely that maybe moderates get elected. And, I think the evidence is kind of mixed,” Pettigrew said.

He said voters unfamiliar with the process might not take full advantage of the new process and leave their second and following choices blank. There is some evidence that the people who do rank multiple candidates tend to be people who “represent groups that already turn out at high rates and, and thus, sort of have their interests already well represented among politicians,” he said.

Poorer people or those with less education “aren't taking advantage or aren't using these ranked choice votes. So to me that seems a bit problematic,” Pettigrew said.

People can vote in person at the polls in the August elections. People can also vote by mail or vote early by request. Sparck said “I'm going to always encourage people to vote early because you don't wanna forget on election day, and you're out in the wilderness and you realize, ‘oh, I can't go vote.’ That's painful to me. You know, I'd rather you be able to subsist without worrying about anything, but make sure you vote early if that's gonna be the case.”

Voters have until July 17 to register to vote in the two elections.

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