U.S. House candidate Democrat Mary Peltola answers questions from a reporter prior to a forum for U.S. House candidates at the Alaska Oil and Gas Association annual conference at the Dena'ina Convention Center in Anchorage, Alaska, on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. Peltola won the special election for Alaska’s only U.S. House seat on Wednesday, besting a field that included Republican Sarah Palin, who was seeking a political comeback in the state where she was once governor. (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News via AP)

After Sarah Palin lost the special election to represent Alaska in the U.S. House, she blamed the state’s new election process. She won a 27 percent plurality in June’s primary, which included candidates from every party. But three more candidates advanced to the August general election (although one withdrew), which was decided using ranked-choice voting, and Palin came up short.

“You know back in June we won, we won, had it been, winner-take-all,” Palin complained, in her trademark disjointed style. “Out of 50, nearly 50 candidates, we won pretty handily, right? And from there, though—oh—ranked-choice voting comes kicking in, and then it becomes convoluted, complicated. Like oh, ‘How many second places did you get? How many third-place votes did you get?’ I don’t know! I was telling people all along: Don’t comply!”

As her advice to voters indicated, Palin didn’t suddenly denounce ranked-choice voting after she lost. She was attacking the system during the campaign. On Mike “My Pillow” Lindell’s streaming network, she said the system is akin to “voter suppression” and that many people think “my vote’s not going to count.”

Senator Tom Cotton’s criticism doesn’t sync with Palin’s. After Palin’s defeat, the Arkansas Republican tweeted, “Ranked choice voting is a scam to rig elections. 60% of Alaska voters voted for a Republican, but thanks to a convoluted process and ballot exhaustion—which disenfranchises voters—a Democrat ‘won.’”

Yes, it’s true that the victorious Democrat, Mary Peltola, only won 40 percent of the first-choice votes. But to follow Palin’s logic, Peltola, having earned the most first-choice votes, still would have won if the race had been winner-take-all.

Of course, for a Democrat to win an election in Alaska with just a plurality would have seemed unfair to Republicans. Such a skewed outcome is what ranked-choice voting is designed to prevent. By factoring in secondary preferences, a factional candidate out of step with the middle of the electorate and unable to stitch together a majority coalition can’t come out on top.

Maine Republicans want to eliminate ranked-choice voting for the opposite reason. In 2014, Republican Bruce Poliquin won the 2nd congressional district in a three-way race with 47 percent of the vote. Four years later, after Maine lawmakers implemented ranked-choice voting, he lost reelection even though he garnered a 46 percent plurality of the first-choice votes.

In bluish Maine, Republicans struggle to reach 50 percent in congressional elections, so ranked-choice voting makes their job harder by taking the possibility of a plurality win off the table. But in redder Alaska, ranked-choice voting should be a lay-up for Republicans.

Two of the three August special election candidates were Republicans, the other Republican being Nick Begich. To win, all GOP leaders had to do was explain to their voters that by ranking Palin and Begich number one and number two, in either order, they would ensure that Alaska would send a Republican to Washington. Given the state’s strong registration advantage of Republicans over Democrats and its generally conservative leanings—it hasn’t gone Democratic in a presidential election since 1964—that should have been enough.

Instead, Palin and Begich ran scorched-earth campaigns against each other. Begich ran ads pointing to Palin’s resignation as Alaska’s governor in the middle of her first term in 2009. She was a “quitter” who “abandoned” her post to “get rich and famous.” Palin dubbed Begich a “RINO” (Republican in Name Only). Both also criticized the new election system. Begich said ranked-choice voting was causing “confusion.” 

While the two Republicans savaged each other and bristled at ranked-choice voting, Peltola hustled for second-choice votes. For example, while walking in a Fairbanks parade, she greeted voters holding Palin and Begich signs. As she told Alaska Public Media, each sign “was an opening for me to say, ‘Hey, you know, good choice. Please think of me second.’” (Furthermore, Peltola’s ad campaign stressed her bipartisan approach to legislating during her 10-year stint in the Alaska House.) So, when Begich ended up with the third-most first-choice votes, only half of his voters’ second-choice votes went to Palin, with 29 percent going to Peltola. The rest—in line with Palin’s exhortation—didn’t mark a second choice. More than 26,000 Begich votes did not get redistributed to Palin, in a race ultimately lost by about 5,000.

If Alaska had a traditional election system, with party primaries, the outcome could have been the same, with disgruntled Begich voters refusing to turn out for Palin in a general election. The resistance toward unification should worry Republicans across the country. Sure, Palin has unique baggage weighing her down among Alaska voters. But Donald Trump has created a GOP culture where infighting is a beloved blood sport.

Long gone is Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” Trump brands any Republican who displays the slightest disloyalty to him as a RINO or “woke.” He trashes the Senate’s leading Republican, Mitch McConnell, as “Old Crow.” And other Republicans follow his example, which is why several of this year’s Senate Republican nominees have limped out of bruising primaries with Trump’s blessing but high unfavorable ratings. And it’s why Palin and Begich felt free to tear the bark off each other.

Ranked-choice voting systems create a disincentive to go negative, since second-choice votes matter. But Trump-aligned Republicans have a greater incentive to attack election systems than adapt to them. Believing that American elections are rigged against MAGA Republicans has become a foundational principle. They don’t even seem to mind losing all that much, as any loss at least provides fresh grist for the conspiracy mill. Following his electoral defeat in 2020, Trump famously “campaigned” for two U.S. Senate incumbents in Georgia, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, fighting to keep their seats in a January 2021 runoff. After losing the once-red state a few weeks earlier, Trump’s denunciation of Georgia’s elections as rigged was not precisely the get-to-the-polls message Republicans needed. Loeffler and Perdue lost, but Trump and his loyalists got to continue ranting about rigged Georgia elections.

Ranked-choice voting has both merits and faults, but one thing it cannot be accused of is robbing Republicans of a House seat. The Republican Party didn’t lose in Alaska because of ranked-choice voting. All ranked-choice voting did was reveal a divided Republican Party. If Republicans want to get Alaska’s House seat back in November, they need to get their own house in order.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.