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After Alaska, where ranked-choice voting is headed next

Alaska’s ranked-choice voting system, used for the first time this year in the state’s primaries and a special congressional election, yielded a defeat for former Gov. Sarah Palin and confusion over the complicated practice.

Ranked-choice voting allows voters to list a second choice and third choice (and beyond) on their ballots rather than forcing them to select one candidate.

Advocates of the system say it encourages friendlier and more centrist races, because candidates have to compete not just to get the top spot on a voter’s ballot but also to land in the second or third spot of a voter who may not consider them a first choice.

Opponents of ranked-choice voting argue the complex nature of calculating votes can too easily produce a winning candidate who does not reflect the will of the majority.

Interest in ranked-choice voting has grown in recent years as more states and cities adopt the method.

In 2019, voters in New York City backed ranked-choice voting, and the system endured its highest-profile test yet in the city’s mayoral primary last year.

A massive tabulation error that occurred in the second round of vote-counting shook confidence in the system, however. The New York City Board of Elections posted results from that round that suggested the third-place candidate on election night had leaped ahead by more votes than was mathematically possible, forcing the board to withdraw the results and admit to a mistake.

Several other cities plan to use ranked-choice voting in future elections, including Boulder, Colorado; Amherst, Massachusetts; and Burlington, Vermont, according to FairVote, a group that advocates the system.

A number of other cities have successfully used ranked-choice voting in previous elections, including Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The first state that used ranked-choice voting was Maine.

And other cities and states are considering whether they should adopt the system.

Washington’s city council discussed the prospect of using ranked-choice voting last fall; the council weighed a bill in 2019 that would have implemented the system.

Some places have opted to use ranked-choice voting for certain races, but not for others.

As an example, during the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, voters in Nevada, Hawaii, Kansas, Wyoming, and Alaska used the ranked-choice method to vote for their preferred nominee, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.

Not all voters have embraced the change. People in Massachusetts greatly rejected a 2020 proposal that would have ushered in ranked-choice voting, with many finding the vote-counting calculations too complicated.

Tabulations work like this: When election officials run the ballots for the first time, the candidate who is listed “No. 1” the fewest number of times is eliminated.

Election officials then count up the “No. 2” votes listed on the eliminated candidate’s ballots and add those to the vote totals of everyone who remains in the race. The next round of tabulation will include those second-choice votes, and the last-place finisher after the numbers are crunched again will get eliminated.

The “No. 2” votes on the eliminated candidate’s ballot will once again be distributed among the candidates left standing. If the second-choice candidate listed has already been eliminated in the first round, election officials will count the third-choice vote, and rounds of tabulation continue until a winner emerges.

In Alaska, Democrat Mary Peltola defeated Palin in a special election for the state’s sole congressional seat.

Peltola won on the second round of tabulation. She secured enough second-choice spots on the ballots of Nick Begich, a Republican candidate who was eliminated in the first round, to cinch the victory when election officials ran the numbers for the next round.


Some Republicans criticized the outcome.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) called ranked-choice voting a “scam” in the Alaska race because, he said: “60% of Alaska voters voted for a Republican, but thanks to a convoluted process and ballot exhaustion — which disenfranchises voters — a Democrat ‘won.’”

If the state had done a traditional election, as most states and cities do, Palin may have faced Peltola alone, and voters would have had a binary choice between a Republican and a Democrat in a red state, which may have boosted her chances of winning.

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