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Could ranked-choice voting take the poison out of politics?

A poll worker walks over to sanitize a voting booth after a voter leaves to walk their ballot over to the machines at Cross Insurance Center on Tuesday, November 3, 2020. (Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
A poll worker walks over to sanitize a voting booth after a voter leaves to walk their ballot over to the machines at Cross Insurance Center on Tuesday, November 3, 2020. (Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

Alaska and Maine use ranked choice voting in elections.

Four other states could soon join them.

Could ranked-choice voting take some of the poison out of politics?

Today, On Point: We learn why more states are considering ranked-choice voting.


Liz Ruskin, political reporter for Alaska Public Media.

Deb Otis, director of research and policy at FairVote, an organization that advocates for ranked choice voting.

Also Featured

Phil Izon, director of Alaskans for Honest Elections, a group seeking to repeal Alaska’s ranked choice voting system.

Lee Drutman, senior fellow at New America, a left-leaning think tank.

Rachael Cobb, chair and associate professor of political science and legal studies at Suffolk University.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Ranked choice voting. Alaska and Maine already use the system in presidential primaries.

EVE FULLERTON: We voted it in after a very right-wing Republican won with only 38% of the vote in our blue state. If you vote red and live in a red state, you’re going to love it. If you vote red and live in a blue state, you may hate it. And if you vote blue and live in a red state, you will hate it. If you live in a purple state, it’s very unpredictable.

CHAKRABARTI: If you can keep track of the colors, On Point listener Eve Fullerton in Maine ends up saying she’s very happy with ranked choice voting. And here’s Mike Koomby in Anchorage, Alaska.

MIKE KOOMBY: Having voted in elections for almost 50 years here in Alaska, I’ve watched as the party extremes are the ones who were nominated. And those are the choices that we get in the general election. In 2022, my first choice won in one race, and my second choice won in the other race, but in both races extreme candidates were eliminated. Ranked choice voting allowed voters in Alaska to choose whether they preferred the extremes or not. And as a result, it was a very refreshing change.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, at least four other states, Oregon, Nevada, Colorado and Idaho, plus Washington D.C. are considering switching their election systems to ranked choice voting.

So today we want to look at what’s behind that push. And could ranked choice voting truly take some of the poison out of U.S. politics? Now I know most of you listening out there probably want us to start with, what exactly is ranked choice voting and how does it work? I promise that we will get to those explainers shortly. But we’re going to actually start with the story in Alaska. Because life is just in a permanent state of flux, and things may be changing there.

Even though advocates think that ranked choice voting is a major move forward for representative democracy, there are other advocates who think it’s not, and they are pushing back against ranked choice voting in the state.

So Liz Ruskin joins us now. She’s a political reporter for Alaska Public Media, and she has maybe the longest commute of any journalist I know, because she’s in Washington D.C. today. Liz, welcome to On Point.

LIZ RUSKIN: Hi Meghna, thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, tell us very quickly about the history of ranked choice voting in Alaska. When was it implemented and why?

RUSKIN: Voters adopted it in Alaska in 2020, by ballot measure. And the author is a Anchorage attorney who had worked for moderate Republicans, including our U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski. He was trying to encourage moderation, and Senator Murkowski is among the obvious beneficiaries of this new system.

CHAKRABARTI: And how was what was going on in Alaska politics, that gave rise to this desire to encourage moderation there?

RUSKIN: We had a semi closed Republican primary. And as partisan primaries work, it tended to elect far-right candidates or candidates who were office holders who were afraid to show moderation. Because they had to clear the Republican, and most cases clear the Republican primary. They were afraid of being primaried.

We had a budget crisis. And especially, at least the author of the ballot measure, to install ranked choice voting. He said that he had heard so many times that Republican legislators were afraid of compromising on this budget crisis, because they’d be primaried.

CHAKRABARTI: Huh. Okay. Then, just to be clear, ranked choice voting was implemented after Alaska voters passed it, right? Because it was a ballot measure for voters.

RUSKIN: And the ballot measure does several things, and it just barely passed in 2020.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so it’s in place now.

We’ll talk in a minute about efforts to actually remove it from Alaska’s system of elections, but I’m wondering if we can get a little bit of analysis on how it’s worked so far, because the idea was that it would make it easier for less extreme candidates to run, I’m wondering what folks think of the recent race between former Governor, excuse me, Sarah Palin and now Congresswoman Mary Peltola in Alaska.

RUSKIN: Right. And one of the important things to notice is that ranked choice voting is different wherever it’s adopted. In the preview clip, you had someone talking about ranking six or seven or eight candidates. We don’t have that. We don’t rank in the primary. We just pick one candidate in the primary. And the top four advance to the general ballot.

So that is important because ranked choice voting is very different depending on intricacies like that.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Is it a closed primary or open primary in Alaska?

RUSKIN: In Alaska now, through this ballot measure, it’s open. All of the candidates appear on one ballot and the top four, regardless of party, move up to the general.

CHAKRABARTI: Ah, okay. So in the primary, voters go in and they pick one, but then the top four advance, and then in the general, people can rank them.

RUSKIN: Exactly. I believe in one of your previews, you said that Alaska had a ranked choice presidential primary. We didn’t. It was, yeah.

We didn’t have that.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, my apologies for that.

RUSKIN: That’s okay, no problem. When I talk, when I try to sound intelligent about Maine’s system, I don’t really bother. Because I’m an Alaska expert.


RUSKIN: Anything I say about Maine is pure conjecture.

CHAKRABARTI: You’re being very gracious. We need to get our facts right here.

So I’m a little, feeling a little down that we didn’t get that. But it’s better to be corrected than to persist in ignorance. So let’s continue here. I just want to hear quickly what you think about whether ranked choice voting had an impact on that race between Palin and Peltola.

RUSKIN: Oh. Absolutely. And one of the biggest, I know this is not as sexy as ranked choice voting, but one of the biggest changes for us, far outweighing the other, is that we have this open primary and that has proved really different. So how Mary Peltola, a unknown Democrat beat one of the, probably the most famous Alaskan who ever existed, Sarah Palin, in a red state, is just pretty interesting.

First of all, let’s not ignore the candidates. Mary Peltola was unknown statewide, but she proved to be very charismatic, ran a positive race. People like her and people like that she’s the first Alaska Native member of Congress. We had a special election with only three candidates.

Usually, we have four for a general, but we had three and Mary Peltola ended up being the top finisher with 40% of the votes. And in part, that’s because there were two Republicans also, and they split the rest of the votes. Sarah Palin got just over 30% of the remaining ballots.

And sorry, of the ballots, and another Republican named Nick Begich finished third with just under 30%. So Begich was eliminated first, and his ballots were redistributed according to how his voters chose, how they voted for their second choice. And it’s really interesting, I think, to see what those votes mean voters did with their ballots.

Because I think it says a lot about ranked choice voting. … He’s a Republican. And if his voters really just wanted to elect a Republican, ranked choice voting would have allowed them to deliver this race to Sarah Palin and I would be now in Washington covering Congresswoman Palin, but that’s not what they did.

About half of his voters chose Sarah Palin as their second choice. And that wasn’t enough. Because a significant number of those voters chose Peltola, the Democrat, as their second choice.

CHAKRABARTI: So there we can see how actually dynamic voters’ minds are when they go into the ballot, into the voting booth.

And that’s reflected in the fact that they could rank their choices. But now I see, Liz, that there is a considerable effort underway from some Alaskans to actually overturn or repeal ranked choice voting in the state. And another question may be put before voters about that. Why? Who’s got a resistance to this new form of elections?

RUSKIN: Conservatives absolutely hate it. And they, among other things, they were really looking forward to punishing Senator Murkowski for voting to impeach, to convict Donald Trump on his second impeachment. And he had vowed that he would go to her state and primary her.

They had no closed primary to oust her. All she had to do was get in the top four to win the primary. And that was easy for her. She did clear that bar, and then there was ranked choice voting. So conservatives were denied an opportunity to punish Senator Murkowski as they wanted to, and then also that’s just an example of what losing the closed Republican, semi closed Republican primary does. And then also this is a strange time to be looking at innovations in voting.

Because anybody who’s inclined to distrust voting by mail or early voting, they’re not going to like the idea of ranked choice. And so you do hear in the state, a lot of conservatives fanning the flames of suspicion around ranked choice voting and saying that it’s not right. So there’s now a petition that’s likely to, it like looks like it succeeded in getting on the ballot for November to repeal both ranked choice voting and the open primary, back to the semi closed.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. Okay. Actually, we talked to someone behind the push to repeal ranked choice voting in Alaska. His concerns mirror concerns of others across the nation. So we’ll hear a little bit about that later as we continue our conversation. So Liz Ruskin, political reporter for Alaska Public Media. Thank you so much for getting us started today.

RUSKIN: Thank you.

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