Human beings are creatures of habit. Habits and routines help us through our days and weeks. And once those habits are deeply dug into our cerebrums, it’s not so easy to escape those well-worn paths. If another person comes along and rattles the bars of our habits, we tend to react defensively.
I remember when we first used ranked choice voting in San Francisco – which was its first use anywhere in the US in many decades – it inspired an uproar among the traditionalists, the downtown interests, election administrators and those afraid of change. The mainstream daily San Francisco Chronicle called it a “crazy roulette ball” and the head of the elections commission called it “the Twilight Zone.” Another “expert” called it “a cure that is likely worse than the disease.” For a while, it seemed like the powers that be were going to flat out refuse to implement it. In fact, we had to sue the city of San Francisco to enforce the new RCV law.
That was 20 years ago, and not only is San Francisco still using RCV, but ranked choice voting has spread across the country to over 50 cities and a number of states, and is now the most popular of political reforms. Because of its ability to incentivize candidates to find common ground and build coalitions as the path toward winning, it raises great hope as a method that could help reduce the toxic partisan polarization that plagues US democracy.
Alaska’s maiden voyage
Enter Alaska, which just used ranked choice voting this past Tuesday for its first time. The Last Frontier State is enormous, some 663,000 sq miles, two and a half times bigger than Texas. The vacant seat of recently-deceased Congressman Don Young had to be filled in a special election staged across the entire state. Alaskans previously decided, via a voter initiative passed almost 2 years ago, to use RCV and combine it with a top-four open primary. So last Tuesday voters also cast ballots for governor, US Senator and state legislators, and in November will use RCV to elect the winners in those races among the top four finishers.
In some ways, Alaska is a really good state to try out ranked choice voting. The Last Frontier has one of the most vibrant independent and minor party cultures in the country. There are about twice as many Republicans as Democrats, but what’s really unique about Alaskan politics is that 60% of its registered voters have chosen “Non-Partisan” or “Undeclared” as their affiliation. Those independents tend to be no-nonsense self-reliant types, with low tolerance for Washington DC games and contraptions.
Despite all the daunting logistics and potential obstacles, by most accounts this maiden voyage using RCV went incredibly well. There have not been any hysterical media stories about voters failing to rank their ballots, or massive voter confusion. In the special election to fill the congressional vacancy, none of the three candidates — former GOP governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, a second Republican, Nick Begich and Democrat Mary Peltola — won a majority of the votes. So that triggers the ranked ballot counting process. The candidates so far are waiting patiently for results – well okay, Sarah Palin has called RCV “crazy, convoluted, cockamamie” and a “Leftist-crafted system.” Her bird-of-a-feather, Donald Trump, has called RCV “crap.” Considering the sources, I take that as a compliment. But so far the Alaska media is for the most part playing it fairly straight.
Nevertheless, the system is new. And so inevitably that is going to lead to some confusion, misunderstanding and grumbling. Before the winners have even been announced, already there is talk of mounting a repeal against it.
This is entirely to be expected. Humans don’t like to be shaken out of our habits. And the current electoral methods that we use, not only in Alaska but throughout the US, involve some really bad habits.
What have been the complaints and objections raised about ranked choice voting so far? Two have been most prominent.
In Peters Creek, a tiny hamlet northeast of Anchorage with a few thousand humans, plus some bears, moose and lots of salmon, the sentiment was expressed that RCV is “stupid,” “dumb” and – worst of all – a scheme to elect more Democrats in a Republican-leaning state.
Interesting viewpoint. However, if you look at the current election results, while it’s true that the Democrat Peltola is currently in the lead with 38% of the vote, Palin and Begich are close behind with 32% and 29% respectively. Meaning Republican candidates together have an overwhelming 61% of the total vote. If Alaska had used a plurality-wins-all method similar to its previous system, the boohoo Republicans would have split their conservative vote among two candidates and the lone Democrat would have been declared the winner.
Or, in the old closed primary system, Palin and Begich would have engaged in a claw-your-eyes-out catfight to see which mangled creature was still crawling across the finish line of the GOP nomination process. With ranked choice voting, in all likelihood the Republican vote will coalesce around one of their two candidates and a Republican will win. Indeed, the official GOP slogan to all Alaskan conservatives was “rank the red” and leave Peltola off your ballots.
Since Begich is currently ranked last, when he is eliminated his supporters’ second rankings will probably hand Palin the election. Peltola would either have to win about 45% of second rankings from Begich’s conservative voters, or a lot of the GOP voters for Palin and Begich would have to single-shot their ballot and not rank the other Republican candidate. Indeed, the ever-polarizing Palin told the Anchorage Daily News that she did not rank anyone other than herself. Still, GOP voters like those in Peters Creek should be falling down on their knees in praise of RCV. Perhaps eventually they will. Historically, most voters who have used ranked choice voting both understand and support it.
When to run the RCV tally – AK election officials hide full RCV results
Other Alaskans have criticized ranked choice voting because final election results won’t be available until the end of August. Election officials won’t even run the RCV tally until then, over two weeks after the special election. Americans like instant election results that can be digested over their instant breakfast in the morning. Two long weeks?
Even the national media started ranking on ranked choice voting for this interminable waiting period. Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press” asked Deb Otis from FairVote, with frustration evident in his voice: “The fact is we’re going to be living in a black box for the next 8 to 10 days while Alaska waits for all of the ballots to come in before they start running the second choice and the third choice. And it seems that this is only going to lead – you already have Sarah Palin using this vacuum to critique the system” (see Todd quote in that link at the 37:00 mark).
These delayed results feed the perception that RCV is such a complicated, messy affair that it requires extraordinary amounts of time to count the ballots. The same was said when New York City used RCV for its first municipal elections in 2021. Election officials there did not run the tally until a week after the election. Those seven long days fed the perception – which turned out to be wrong – that mayoral front runner Eric Adams had a sizable nine-point lead, based on first-rankings only.
But once election officials actually pushed the button to run the RCV tally, it was discovered that the election was a one-point squeaker between Adams and his top opponent, Kathryn Garcia, who was in third place when only first rankings were counted. New York City election officials’ refusal to run the RCV tally had given a completely wrong perception about the dynamics of the race. Once they ran the tally, and with many mail-in ballots still to count, suddenly the public was aware that the margin was razor-thin.
But the failure in NYC to run the RCV tally was not the fault of ranked choice voting. The fault was that of the election officials. The fact is, once you push the button to run the RCV tally, the counting is all done by a superfast computer. It takes a matter of minutes to complete that count. You can run the tally once a day, or even several times a day as you continually process mail-in ballots. It’s that easy to do.
But as in New York City, Alaska election administrators erroneously assumed that the RCV tabulation would be operationally complicated, despite the many places that use RCV where it’s not complicated and preliminary RCV tallies are run on Election Night. In Alaska, due to the high number of very rural, frontier voters and overseas military voters whose mail-in ballots can take a number of days to reach the counting locations, the Alaska Division of Elections long ago established a policy of allowing 15 days following the election for those postmarked mail-in ballots to arrive. And they don’t start counting those mail-in ballots until that 15 day period expires. This has been Alaska policy well before ranked choice voting came on the scene. In fact, it took 15 days to decide Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s win in 2010.
Also, among many election administrators there is another false assumption – that public confusion will ensue if the outcome changes between an initial RCV tally on election night and the final tally many days later. Especially with so many mail-in ballots to count post-election, some administrators conclude that it would better to wait until most ballots had been processed before hitting the RCV tally button.
But these dynamics actually play out just the opposite. As we saw in the New York City mayoral election, because election officials waited to run the first RCV tally, the media and the public began erroneously assuming that the frontrunner with a wide lead, based only on first-choice results, would win easily. A similar dynamic ensued in the 2010 mayoral election in Oakland using RCV, where election officials waited for days to run the tally. When the second-place finisher actually came from behind to claim victory, all hell broke loose. That undermined the credibility of the election results and the legitimacy of the new mayor, who happened to be the first Asian-American woman elected mayor of a major U.S. city.
But if the Oakland election officials had run the RCV tally on election night, the public would have seen right away that the frontrunner was actually losing an extremely close race. By waiting, they caused the very confusion they had feared.
Having learned their lesson, now the election officials in Oakland, as well as in nearby San Francisco, run the first RCV tally on election night, and then another one on each day following the election. They count however many ballots have been processed up to that time, and announce the results as “preliminary” (as even non-RCV elections must do). They also announce how many mail-in ballots remain outstanding. It’s easy and fast to do, and Alaska could have done that as well.
In addition, these San Francisco-Bay Area officials post on the internet a digital text file of the “ballot images,” which is an anonymous digital record of each voter’s rankings. That allows the media and members of the public to download the ballot images and, on their own computers, run the RCV tally. This has created maximum transparency, and established a precedent for crowdsourced election security.
These examples show us very clearly: the best practice is to run the RCV tally early and often, and to release the ballot images to the public for crowd-sourced verification. Doing that actually fosters clarity and eases the concerns of the public. If only first choices are initially released, as in Alaska and New York City, nobody really knows what is going on in that election, especially if the race is close. Sequestering ballots and withholding RCV tallies undermines public confidence. As “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd said, it creates a black box.
While I understand the caution on the part of Alaskan officials for their maiden RCV election, what they unfortunately don’t realize is that their excessive caution actually creates even more problems. FairVote recently released a new report outlining “best practices” for running ranked choice voting elections, which includes both of my recommendations. Unfortunately it arrived too late for Alaska or New York City. But soon there will more jurisdictions holding their first RCV elections.
For some people, new ideas like ranked choice voting can take some time to get used to. That’s true of nearly all innovations and breakthroughs. But if we are forever stuck to the flypaper of old ideas, then society will never move forward. If we don’t try new methods, our politics will become even more static and polarized. The founders of the young American nation were themselves great innovators, and Alaska is honoring their spirit by pioneering a new path forward. The rest of the nation should pay close attention.
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