Episode 65: Alaska’s Experiment with Ranked-Choice Voting

Michael Schaus

Free to Offend Episode 65 | Guest: Sarah Montalbano, Alaska Policy Forum

With ranked-choice voting on the ballot in Nevada, many eyes turned toward Alaska to see how the system actually works in practice.

Sarah Montalbano from the Alaska Policy Forum joined the program to discuss the troubles Alaska had in its recent special election, including the way ranked-choice voting impacted the election outcome. Unlike backers of Question 3 in Nevada, Montalbano argues the process did little to help the political climate in the state and actually introduced numerous unintended challenges for voters and politicians alike.

Read the Transcript

Sarah Montalbano: When there’s an open primary, there’s not a lot of discussion within political parties about platforms and who’s going to best represent that party. And you can see that happened in Alaska.

Michael Schaus: This is Free to Offend. I’m your host, Michael Schaus. I’m very happy to welcome Sarah Montalbano. She’s the research associate at Alaska Policy Forum. Also, the education policy analyst. Northwest Regional leader for Young Voices.

The reason why we wanted to have her on is because, well, she’s from Alaska, quite frankly. The Alaska Policy Forum has been pretty critical of the idea of ranked-choice voting from the very beginning. But it seemed like a pretty good idea to get somebody from Alaska whose kind of got some on the ground perspective of how ranked-choice voting worked in a state that just recently went through its first ever round of ranked-choice voting, because of course, here in Nevada, well, it’s on the ballot. It’s being discussed. And according to polls, it’s kind of up for grabs. I mean, a lot of people seem a little wishy-washy on it. There’s still a lot of undecideds here in Nevada going into the election.

So, we wanted to talk to somebody who recently saw firsthand, on the ground experience of how ranked-choice voting worked in Alaska, both kind of the good and the bad of it. You know, it’s one of those issues where I see a lot of disagreement about whether ranked-choice voting would be good or bad, even within normally like-minded factions of politics.

I mean, libertarians are split on it. Republicans are split on it. Conservatives are split on it. Democrats are split on it. The more we can talk about it, the more you can form your take on it.

So, Sarah, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it.

Sarah Montalbano: Thank you for having me.

Michael Schaus: So, we just saw rather recently what happened in Alaska as far as your guys’ special election. And it was of particular interest to a lot of folks in Nevada because you guys used this new system called Ranked-choice Voting. And this is something that has been discussed in Nevada. It’s actually going to be a ballot initiative, potentially a constitutional amendment if the voters approve it.

And we will have a system that looks very similar to what’s going on in Alaska. And we’ve talked about it before in the podcast a couple of times. But I’m interested in getting the perspective of somebody who has, you know, actually kind of lived through the experience a little bit.

So first talk to me a little bit about what happened in Alaska. You guys instituted ranked-choice voting, which is effectively, and correct me if I’m wrong, it’s going to be open primaries and then voters have to rank their choices in the general election among, I think four different candidates. Is that effectively what happened in Alaska?

Sarah Montalbano: That’s correct.

Michael Schaus: Your group, Alaska Policy Forum, has written critically about the idea of ranked choice voting. How do you feel it went, as people actually had to go out and go to the ballots and everything? How do you think it actually was? Did it go smoothly? Were people terribly confused? I mean, what did the overall process look like?

Sarah Montalbano: Absolutely. So, we instituted ranked choice voting in 2020, which meant that the special election to fill Don Young’s house seat was the first ranked-choice voting election that we had. The open primary in June, I believe, of this year was chaotic. There were 48 candidates on the primary ballot.

Michael Schaus: Wow.

Sarah Montalbano: Yeah, it was really crazy. The ballot was huge. There were two Republicans that made it to the top four, Sarah Palin and Nick Begich III. Sarah Palin is why national news media has turned their focus on this election. And then third place going into the general was Surgeon Al Gross, who challenged, I believe, Dan Sullivan a few years ago. And then fourth was Democrat Mary Peltola.

And what really threw a wrench into the system and confused a lot of people was when Al Gross dropped out. There was some legal question as to whether the fifth-place finisher should move into the fourth-place spot. They did not. So, we only had three candidates on the general election ballot: Palin, Begich and Peltola.

That general election, we voted on August 16th, and we got the final results back August 31st. So about two weeks later. And remarkably 60% of first choice votes went to Republicans split between Palin and Begich. But Peltola picked up enough second place votes to go to Congress for this.

So, we’re going to see in November what happens again. Especially, it’ll be a little different if we get four candidates instead of three. But overall, I think voters were quite confused on the ground as to what happened. And we can see that there were a substantial portion of ballots that only picked their first choice. They didn’t rank any other candidates. And if about half of them had, it would’ve swung the election back to Sarah Palin.

Michael Schaus: And that’s something. And I want to touch on that in a second. But you know, first I think it’s important to point out before any of the ranked-choice voting really came into play, this entire election was kind of chaos from the beginning if I’ve got it right. I mean, 48 folks in the open primaries are huge. That’s massive.

Sarah Montalbano: It’s remarkable.

Michael Schaus: Yeah. And that right there seems to be, you know, one of the first objections that comes up when I talk to folks about ranked-choice voting is the open primaries. And they’re worried about exactly that, just this flood of people. It becomes suddenly very difficult to make a determination because nobody’s really got the direct attention. It’s like everybody’s attention is so diffused among 48 different individuals. It kind of creates chaos. Is that new in Alaska or do you guys routinely see such chaos in the primaries?

Sarah Montalbano: We do not usually see that. This again was the first time we’ve used the open primary. And then the second factor to that is Don Young was in the house for 49 years. It’s been a very long time since anyone has seriously challenged this seat. So, I think there were a lot of political opportunists, throwing their name onto the primary ballot for fun.

But the other thing I would note is, when there’s an open primary, there’s not a lot of discussion within political parties about platforms and who’s going to best represent that party. And you can see that happened in Alaska where Nick Begich and Sarah Palin, if this had been a party primary where they had to compete for the nomination from the Alaska Republican Party, we would’ve potentially worked out some of those ideological issues and had, you know, a better chance of it in the general election.

So that’s another thing I noticed with an open primary is there doesn’t need to be that much discussion of issues. And it’s especially difficult when you have 48 people trying to discuss it all. It’s impossible for voters to follow the positions of that many people.

Michael Schaus: Yeah, and I was talking to a supporter of ranked-choice voting and his counter to that was effectively that parties can still endorse whoever they want to because they’re private entities. So, if the Republicans wanted to come out and say, “Hey, fellow Republicans vote for Palin, forget Begich, or whatever the case is.”

In practice though, obviously we don’t really see that. I don’t know about Alaska, but I know in Nevada, our Republican party is barely organized as it is. I really don’t see them getting together there.
Do you say that, you know, during the primary, one of the things that was really lacking was kind of candidates distinguishing themselves on policy and on issues that matter to voters. It just noise basically, is what you’re saying?

Sarah Montalbano: I think so. There was a lot of name recognition in this particular race. And what I would say to the support of ranked-choice voting, that point you brought up You know, Nick Begich was endorsed by the Alaska Republican Party. That did not do him that much good because on the primary ballot and on the general election ballot, the Division of Elections lists your party affiliation, the R D or L, next to your name.

That’s what you are registered to vote under. It’s not any indication of endorsement by the party. It’s nothing like that. You can say, “Look, I’m registered as a Republican, but you know, I haven’t voted Republican in 20 years.” So that’s one thing that was I noticed in the rules that was a little concerning. Endorsements are kind of outside of the balloting process, if that makes

Michael Schaus: To a voter who is not very active within the Republican Party, for example, they would see a ballot and they’d see multiple R’s and they wouldn’t know, “Well wait, which one does my party think, you know, fits our values the best.”

Sarah Montalbano: Exactly.

Michael Schaus: That makes sense. You brought up the fact that a lot of folks only put one choice. The whole idea behind ranked choice voting is, let’s say here in Nevada, we would have five. You guys had potentially four except for the chaos of this particular election. So, the idea behind it is, “Oh, okay. You know, I like so and so for my first choice, here’s my second choice, third choice, fourth choice, fifth choice.”

But it appears that a lot of people put only their first choice. How much of that do you think, and this is obviously just subjective, but how much of that do you think boils down to confusion and how much of it boils down to some of what was being said by folks like Sarah Palin, who told people “Don’t comply, don’t rank your votes, just put your first choice.”?

I guess my question is how much of that is confusion and how much of that is the consequence of clearly some of the candidates not understanding how to take advantage of the system.

Sarah Montalbano: That’s clearly the question we’re looking at here because it could be some combination. Alaskans have found Sarah Palin somewhat unsavory because she resigned from the governorship. So that’s one personality reason that could be why.

Well, let me back up and give you the way it broke down. In the general election, Sarah Palin got about 31% of first choice votes. Mary Peltola got about 40%, so that’s a nine-percentage lead. But once Nick Begich’s second choice votes were redistributed, about 50% of those went to Sarah Palin, which narrowed her lead there. And almost a third of votes went to Mary Peltola. And then about 11,000 were exhausted, which meant they voted for Nick Begich and nobody else.

That is a little interesting because that could mean those voters were not enthused about marking Palin as their second choice. It could mean that they just didn’t want to vote any differently than the way they always had which is, you know, fair considering the ranked-choice voting system. And it could have simply been confusion, or it could have said, “Look, I’m not interested in voting for anybody except my favorite candidate.”

So, that’s really the question and I could only speculate as to what portion is to each reason.

Michael Schaus: Yeah. I mean, obviously I don’t expect you to, you know, be able to break that down, but I thought it was interesting because as I saw the race progressing, that was one of the things that jumped out at me.

When you visit the folks at fairvote.com or you listen to the folks that are promoting ranked-choice voting here in Nevada, one of the things that they point out, and I also think this was actually a bad example that they pointed out but it, I mean, it did happen. They pointed out in New York, for example, you had Andrew Yang campaigning with people who are ostensibly his opponents. But they were campaigning together asking folks, “Look, vote for one of us for first place. And if you don’t like me, then put me in second place because we’re all part of the same gang here.”

And so, you know, their argument is it builds more collaboration. But obviously that’s not what we saw in Alaska. And as a side note, it didn’t really work out in New York either. But you know, in Alaska, we really didn’t see that. And I’m curious, you know, just talking to you since you obviously are well in tune with Alaska politics, if that’s just kind of a thing about Alaska, like just a quirk about Alaska.

Is Sarah Palin, you know, damaged as far as her name is concerned enough that a lot of folks who, you know, maybe voted for Begich, and then put the Democrat as their second choice? Had this been a regular head-to-head runoff, maybe they dislike Palin enough that they just go with the Democrat.

It’s kind of hard to tell. So, I just wanted to get your take on, you know, the politics in Alaska. How much of that is responsible versus how much of voters looking at this ballot saying, “What do you mean I rank choices?”

Sarah Montalbano: Definitely. I think both of those are factors. You know, like I said, Sarah Palin has made herself a little unsavory to a lot of Alaska voters in large part because she’s been gone from the political scene for a decade.

And her in Alaska was resigning as governor, which I think a lot of Alaskans have a sour taste in their mouth about that. But conversely, I mean, Nick Begich repeatedly told his supporters, “Look, rank the red. Put Sarah Palin second. We need to make sure that, you know, we don’t split the Republican vote and hand it to a Democrat.” So that was part of it.

And then Sarah Palin I don’t think wants to work with this system. Because regardless of whether you think ranked-choice voting is good or bad, the reality is that in Alaska, it is here for the next election. It is here for the special election. We need to learn how to strategize and work with it.

And I think part of it is that they’ll ask Republicans, at least the candidates this time didn’t encourage voters to think about it strategically. And that’s one of the downsides I see as ranked-choice voting, too, is a political science concept called modernity. And that basically means that if I rank a candidate higher, it should only help them. It shouldn’t hurt them.

But in rank choice building, there’s a lot of configurations where ranking your candidate higher might actually hurt them. So, I can go into more detail about that if you’d like.

Michael Schaus: Yeah, we’ll dive into that here in just a second because that’s actually a really good segue because one of the problems that ranked-choice voting is ostensibly designed to help fix is something that I actually think is a real problem.

It’s the way that both the major political parties have become less representative of average people. And that’s because they could be hijacked by any variety of activist groups. You know, the Ron Paul supporters back in, you know, the early two thousands. Like they were trying to do it for what I would consider, quote unquote the right reasons.

But it was interesting to see how you had a small group of people really changed the dynamic of the Republican party. Or in the Democrat party right now, you’ve got, especially out here in, in Nevada, I mean, we’ve got an actual socialist running the Democrat apparatus and, you know, they’re not representative of most Nevada Democrats.

And so good for these ranked-choice voting folks. I think they’ve identified an actual problem, which is the two parties are becoming less representative.

The challenge that I see with ranked-choice voting, regardless of whether or not you think it’s a solution to that or you think it’s a good idea, is exactly what you brought up, which is the parties, and the candidates are going to have to change the way that they think about getting elected. And that’s something I think like Sarah Palin didn’t do in Alaska. But it’s also something that you know, folks who are part of the party, if it looks like ranked-choice voting’s going to be a reality, you have to start thinking pragmatically as opposed to just what you would like and think, Alright, how do we change our approach?”

So, with that, how do you change your approach? Talk to me a little bit about how if you rank your preferred choices higher, that might potentially not help them. Talk a little bit about how that’s something that can happen.

Sarah Montalbano: Definitely. So, a lot of the outcome in ranked-choice voting depends on who initially comes in last in that first round.

So, let’s consider the hypothetical where it’s Mary Peltola coming in first, Nick Begich in second, and then Sarah Palin. So, in that scenario, Sarah Palin would’ve been eliminated it and her votes redistributed to their second choices. And we don’t know. We don’t know the tallies for second and third choice votes in the way that it wasn’t actually tallied.

So, this is, you know, hypothetical, but if most of Palin’s voters had found Begich an acceptable second, he could have been catapult to victory. So that’s a case where Democrats might choose to strategically rank Mr. Begich first. And you could say, “Look, I would like my second-choice vote to go to Mary Peltola.” And then you could knock them out early.

So that’s one way I think that ranked-choice voting depends a lot on who’s initially coming in last, because those second-choice votes are what actually matter. It doesn’t matter the second-choice votes of voters who stay with their first choice because that person isn’t eliminated.

Did I explain that clearly?

Michael Schaus: Yeah, I think so. So basically, let’s say that here in Nevada, we’ve got five folks on the ballot and two are Democrats, two are Republicans, and one is Libertarian. You know, you might have some Democrats vote for, say, a Republican or the Libertarian candidate as their first choice, basically knowing that that person’s not going to be one of the finalists, so to speak. But it keeps the other Republican from getting a clear majority in the first round. Is that kind of what you’re saying?

Sarah Montalbano: Yes. Yeah, that’s pretty much the scenario. And the Wall Street Journal editorial board put a good review, an outlook out speculating about that exact scenario. So, they have a good resource there.

Michael Schaus: Now, since it is in place in Alaska, I kind of doubt that it’s going to be going anywhere, at least in the short term.

Sarah Montalbano: Yeah, not before November.

Michael Schaus: Right, right. So, you know, basically you guys are going to be going through this again sometimes pretty soon. Here in Nevada, we’re going to be voting on it in November. If it passes, we’re going to have to approve it again. Going back to what I said a second ago where it’s like at some point you have to look at it pragmatically. And I understand more of a political question than a policy question, but do you think that Alaskans or Alaska’s political parties are going to be able to do that? Or is this going to be one of those where the system is new enough that it’s going to be years before some folks finally kind of get their head around it and realize, “Oh, this is how, this is how we have to move forward now.”? What do you think? Do you think the parties are going to be able to say, “Okay, let’s step back and recalibrate how we should go about getting elected”?

Sarah Montalbano: I think the parties have a good enough understanding, especially because this special election was a real demonstration of what happens when there’s a failure to strategize effectively. But I think there’s always going to be a strong constituency of voters who don’t want ranked-choice voting. They’re not going to participate in it, perhaps at all. They might not vote a first choice. They might just not vote, which reduces voter turnout.

I have a personal story about that. My father, I went back to visit him, and he said, “Yeah, I’ve been voting for decades in Alaska, but I threw away my primary ballot because I’m not going to participate in a system where it’s giving me a giant sheet of paper and asking me to pick out of 48 candidates the one, I like the most.”

And so, I think probably a lot of people now feel that way and are, you know, either so confused that they decide not to bother or, you know, as a form of protest, aren’t going to participate in it. And that’s one thing I think the state of Maine also found is that, you know, voter turnout is kind of depressed a little bit. And that it’s usually the voters who are least likely to vote in the first place, the more casual voters who, you know, show up for presidential elections, but not more local stuff. Those are the kind of voters that are not showing up to the polls.

Michael Schaus: Interesting. Overall, obviously you guys have been critical of ranked-choice voting, and we’ll see during the next election how it goes when hopefully the primary is not quite as crazy. But what would your main word of caution be to folks who are hearing all of this?

On this program, I’m mostly interested in just getting folks to give their perspective, either for or against it, because so many folks know nothing about it. And if it’s going to be on the ballot, you at least, you know, I don’t care how you vote on the issue, but you definitely have to investigate it a little bit.

So, what’s the one kind of takeaway? If somebody’s heard about ranked-choice voting. They’ve heard some of the pros for it, some of the cons for it. As somebody that’s lived through it, what would be the one thing that you’d say, “Hey, this is something you might not have realized that we now realize here in Alaska, because we’ve actually dealt with it.”

Sarah Montalbano: Definitely. I’ve got a big one. So, the major caution I would say about ranked-choice voting is this phenomenon of exhausted ballots. So exhausted ballots occur when all the candidates that a voter rank have been eliminated. So that ballot is exhausted, it’s not counted in any further rounds. Exhausted ballots happened to the voters who only voted for Nick Begich and nobody else.

So, if you’re leaving columns blank in a ranked-choice voting ballot, it’s possible for your ballot to be exhausted. And so that means a significant portion of the voters, often more than 10% (I don’t know the statistic for Alaska’s special election), have no say in the final outcome. And so what that leads to with exhausted ballots is that candidates don’t actually need a majority of the votes cast to win. They will have more than 50% of the votes remaining at the end. But you don’t actually have a majority if there’s a significant percentage of exhausted ballots.

And I want to leave your listeners with one statistic. In a study of Maine, 96 ranked-choice voting elections where multiple rounds of tabulation were necessary, the eventual winner failed to receive a majority of the votes cast 62% of the time. They were always clocking in above 50 of the votes remaining at the end of the process. But actual majority, that’s not happening at the votes cast level.

And that’s one thing I think ranked-choice voting proponents say a lot as well, “Candidates always need a majority to win.” But that’s not exactly true.

Michael Schaus: Okay. Yeah, because it’s a majority of the ballots that survive each round, so to speak.

Sarah Montalbano: Yeah, that make to the end.

Michael Schaus: Okay. That makes sense. That’s something I think a lot of people probably haven’t heard it put that way, which is definitely something to consider. And there are two things to think about. There is you know, one here in Nevada, it’s definitely worth us considering as we are about to be asked whether or not we want to adopt ranked-choice voting. And for voters in Alaska, it’s really important to keep that in mind too, because if you want to make sure that you’ve got a voice at the end, you need to vote strategically. You need to make sure that you’re not just saying, “Oh, here’s Begich, and that’s the only one I care about.” because your ballot might not count after the first round, as we saw with what you said about 11,000 folks.

Well, Sarah, we really appreciate it. If people want to find out more what’s going on at the Alaska Policy Forum, where can they go?

Sarah Montalbano: I would encourage you to go to www.alaskapolicyforum.org. We have some resources written by myself and my very talented colleague, Quinn Townsend, about ranked-choice voting, both before the election and afterward. And I also do some ranked-choice voting work through my Young Voices profile, which you can find at young-voices.com.

Michael Schaus: Perfect. Well, Sarah, thank you so much. We really appreciate you taking the time to join us today.

Sarah Montalbano: Thank you so much for having me.

Michael Schaus: Again, Sarah Montalbano with the Alaska Policy Forum. Somebody who has always been fairly critical of ranked-choice voting, so it was good to get her perspective on it. If you want to hear the other side of the argument, we did a podcast a while ago with one of the people that’s actually pushing for ranked-choice voting here in the state, so you can kind of hear the pro and con about it.

Here’s the bottom line. It is a fundamental change to the way that you are electing representatives. And because it is question three on the ballot this year, you need to understand it. And you need to understand not only the, the pros and cons, but also some of the unintended consequences that go along with it as well.

And, and I will tell you one of the biggest unintended consequences, I think one of the biggest concerns, is the fact that political parties suck at changing. They absolutely are horrible at trying to readjust their strategy. And so, you look at a change, like what happened in Alaska, and you look at the disarray that happened in their special election. Politicians and political parties are slow to adapt to new systems, whether that be electoral systems or campaigning systems or technological systems. They’re always lagging.

So, it’s going to be interesting to see if in places like Alaska or Maine, where this has actually been implemented, if the political parties are capable of saying, “Okay, we have to do things a different way if we are going to continue to be effective in this state.’

Thank you so much for listening. Hey, be sure to go to Nevadapolicy.org/podcast and there you can not only download every episode that you want to listen to, but you can also let us know if there is a guest or a particular topic that you think we ought to talk about or have on a show.

Again, Nevadapolicy.org/podcast. This has been Free to Offend.


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 Free to Offend:
A podcast that radically defends free speech by regularly practicing it.

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featuring Nevada Policy’s Michael Schaus.