Democracy in Alaska

Alaska goes to the polls tomorrow in a by-election (called in the US a “special election”) to elect a new member of the House of Representatives – its only one, with the whole state as one electorate. Previous incumbent Don Young, a Republican, died in office in March, having been in the job for an extraordinary 49 years.

Traditionally a strong Republican state but with a distinct libertarian streak, Alaska has also recently been at the forefront of electoral reform. So while only a single seat is at stake (and only for a few months, since congressional elections are due anyway in November), the election is well worth a look.

A single non-partisan or “jungle” primary was held on 11 June. But whereas such primaries usually select just two candidates, like a European-style two round election, Alaska’s new system involves the top four candidates going through to the main election, where they will compete in a preferential ballot: what the Americans describe as “ranked-choice voting”.

Two Republicans, a Democrat and a Democrat-leaning independent led the crowded primary field. The independent subsequently withdrew (and endorsed the Democrat), leaving three candidates on the ballot tomorrow: Democrat Mary Peltola, a former state legislator, and rival Republicans Nick Begich, the mainstream candidate, and Sarah Palin.

Palin has not been in the news much for a while, but all save the youngest readers will remember her as the Alaskan governor who was Republican vice-presidential candidate in 2008 (she is still the only woman to have appeared on a Republican national ticket). Prefiguring many of the themes later exploited by Donald Trump, but with a certain folksy charm quite alien to the latter, she became a figure of fun to many while also attracting much devotion in conservative circles.

Declining the opportunity to run for president in 2012, Palin spent some years as a media personality and has now set her sights on a political comeback. (She was a very young governor and is still only 58.) Running against the local party establishment – but with Trump’s endorsement – she topped the poll in the primary with 27.0%; Begich had 19.1% and Peltola 10.1%.

It’s a good example of why the Trumpists don’t like democracy. In the conventional system that most states use, Palin would have won the Republican primary and as the Republican candidate would most probably have won the seat (Trump won 55.6% of the two-party vote there in 2020). But preferential voting offers three ways that she could end up losing:

  1. Since Begich now has the opportunity to vacuum up the votes from the also-ran Republican candidates, he could get ahead of her, leaving her in third place and therefore eliminated.
  2. With so much attention on the Republicans, it’s possible that Peltola, the Democrat, will be the one eliminated, in which case her preferences would presumably elect Begich.
  3. Even if Begich is the one eliminated, it’s possible that a substantial number of his voters will feel that they have done their duty to the GOP by putting him first and will then either let their votes exhaust or preference Peltola, electing her ahead of Palin.

In addition to railing against the voting system, Trump has told his supporters not to give preferences: the “just vote 1” strategy made famous by Peter Beattie in Queensland. If enough Palin voters follow that advice, it could result in Begich missing out even if he gets ahead of her. But since Trumpists regard moderate Republicans as their most dangerous enemy it’s unlikely they would be upset by that consequence.

Also, and confusingly, being voted on tomorrow are the primary elections for both senator and representative for November’s election. Incumbent senator Lisa Murkowski, an anti-Trump Republican, is certain to be in the top four, but the results will indicate how well placed she is to fight off the inevitable Trumpist challenger. For the House seat, much the same cast will front up again as for the by-election, with Palin, Begich and Peltola all expected to qualify.

There’s one other significant election in the US tomorrow, although the result seems to be a foregone conclusion: Republican Liz Cheney, who has become her party’s most outspoken Trump critic, faces almost certain defeat in the primary for her House seat in Wyoming. Her main challenger, Harriet Hageman, has Trump’s endorsement and a lead of maybe twenty points in the polls for what is a very safe Republican state.

Polls in Alaska close at 2pm or 3pm eastern Australian time, although distribution of preferences won’t take place until the end of the month. FiveThirtyEight’s preview is well worth a read.

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