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How Tom Cotton misleads about ranked choice voting in Alaska
If Your Time is short
Alaskans voted in 2020 to adopt ranked choice voting, a method by which voters rank their preferences of candidates. Voters in that state are using ranked choice voting for the first time this year, including for the Aug. 16 special election for a House seat.
In a first round of voting, Democrat Mary Peltola won 40% of the vote, with the rest of the votes split between Republicans Sarah Palin (31%) and Nick Begich III (28%). Because no candidate received more than 50% of the vote, voting went to a second round between Peltola and Palin. In the second round, enough voters ranked Peltola to enable her to win, with about 51% of the vote.
The election was for a seat left vacant after the death of Congressman Don Young, and the term has only a few months remaining. The same candidates will compete again in November to determine who will hold the seat for the next two-year term.
Critics of ranked choice voting are using Democrat Mary Peltola’s win of Alaska’s House seat to distort the new method of casting votes. Peltola defeated two Republicans: Sarah Palin and Nick Begich III.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., tweeted Aug. 31, the day Peltola was named the winner, "60% of Alaska voters voted for a Republican, but thanks to a convoluted process and ballot exhaustion — which disenfranchises voters — a Democrat ‘won.’"
Cotton is free to dislike ranked choice voting — he isn’t the only critic. Supporters argue that ranked-choice voting eliminates extremist candidates; critics say it hasn’t lived up to its ideals.
But Cotton’s comments misinterpret how ranked choice voting works.
It would be more precise to say that in the first round, about 60% voted for one of two Republicans. In the first round, Republican Sarah Palin captured 31% of votes, and Republican Nick Begich III had 28%. Voting then went to a second round because no candidate received more than 50% of the vote in the first round.
"Peltola won fair and square by ranked choice voting rules," said University of Alaska political scientist Jerry McBeath.
Alaska is using ranked choice voting to fill the seat left vacant by the death of U.S. Rep. Don Young. The election that Peltola won was a special election to serve out the remainder of Young’s term, which is only a few months. Another election in November between the same candidates will determine who holds the seat for a full two-year term.
Starting this year, ranked choice voting will also be used in other Alaska elections, including for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Lisa Murkowski.
We asked Cotton’s spokesperson for his evidence that the ranked choice system disenfranchised voters and she pointed to a 2020 op-ed by Cotton opposing the idea of Arkansas adopting ranked choice voting. Ultimately, a question about whether to adopt ranked choice voting didn’t make it to the ballot in Cotton’s home state of Arkansas.
In a traditional election, either a primary or a general election, voters choose one candidate. But under ranked choice voting, the voters rank candidates in descending order of preference.
Communities of varying political stripes and geographic sizes, from cities in Utah to New York City, have used ranked choice voting. Alaska is the second state to implement it on a wide scale after Maine. Alaska voters approved ranked choice voting through a 2020 referendum.
Alaska’s model established an all-party primary in which four candidates would advance to a general election that would use ranked choice voting. In the June primary, the top vote-getters were Palin, Begich, Al Gross and Peltola. Gross then dropped out.
After the first round for the Aug. 16 election, Peltola was in first place with about 40% of the vote.
Begich was eliminated, and voting went to a second round.
Enough voters listed Peltola as either their first or second choice to ultimately give her about 51.47% of the vote, according to results that will be certified Sept. 2.
Therefore, Cotton’s comment that "60% of Alaska voters voted for a Republican" only applied to the first round of voting — which was not the final round — when that percentage voted for one of two Republicans.
If Alaska instead had held a traditional primary and Palin won more votes in a Republican primary than Begich (as she did in the first round of ranked choice voting), the results of Aug. 16 election suggest that Peltola would have won the general election faceoff even without ranked choice voting.
Cotton said that "ballot exhaustion" occurred — a reference to when voters fail to rank enough candidates. There were about 11,000 exhausted ballots, or about 21% of the ballots on the second round.
It’s possible some voters didn’t understand that they could rank more than one candidate, even though officials and voter outreach groups publicized how to fill out the ballot. The Alaska Elections Division scheduled mock elections and posted concept ballots online. One group held an event at which audience members could rank drag queen performances.
But voters aren’t forced to rank more than one candidate.
Alaskans for Better Elections, a group that advocated for ranked choice voting, conducted exit surveys of voters and found that a majority found ranked choice voting simple. For those who ranked only one candidate, 75% said "that was the only candidate I liked."
Palin said she ranked no candidates but herself.
"I do not believe in this system. It should not be embraced by enthusiastic participation when we know it’s not right," she said.
Although some people may be surprised that more of the votes for Begich didn’t transfer to Palin, that ignores the context of Palin as a polarizing figure, said David Kimball, a University of Missouri political scientist.
Palin and Begich spent much of the campaign attacking each other, so it’s unsurprising that some of Begich’s supporters didn’t rank Palin second.
McBeath, the University of Alaska political scientist, said Alaskans voted against Palin for various reasons, including her not finishing her term as governor, her leaving the state after achieving national celebrity or because they found her too extreme or her views "too Trumpist."
"Some supported Peltola because she projected herself as able to speak for all Alaskans and had done that in the state legislature, others because she was an Alaska native, others because her stances were moderate," he said.
Cotton tweeted that Peltola "won" — a word he put in quote marks, which could mean he deemed her victory invalid. But ranked choice voting is a legal way to conduct elections, and it’s the law in Alaska.
"Alaska has settled on a very legitimate, perfectly safe and sane system to run their elections," said Dan Shea, a government professor at Colby College.
The idea behind ranked choice voting is to give voters preferences, Shea said. He compared it to going to a food buffet.
"You don't head back to the table with just one item, but instead lots of what you like. King crabs, to be sure! But then a few other choices that are just OK make the plate, too. The french fries. The items you really don't like -— the spinach salad — never touch your plate. For many of the Begich voters, Palin never made the plate. Spinach salad. Pretty simple."
Cotton also tweeted that the ranked choice voting system was a "scam to rig elections." We rated a similar claim Pants on Fire. Cotton waited to reach that conclusion until the Democrat won.
"It is dangerous for democracy when politicians claim a rigged election when they happen to lose," Kimball said.
Peltola, Palin and Begich will face each other again in November.
Republicans have a good shot at winning the full, two-year term if they do choose to "rank the red" then, said Rob Richie, president of FairVote, a Maryland-based nonprofit group that supports ranked choice voting.
Cotton tweeted "60% of Alaska voters voted for a Republican, but thanks to a convoluted process and ballot exhaustion — which disenfranchises voters — a Democrat ‘won.’"
Peltola achieved a legitimate win in a state in which the electorate approved ranked choice voting as the law. Peltola’s path to victory was aided by the two Republicans having attacked each other, and by Palin having a lot of critics.
Cotton arrived at the 60% figure by adding up the total votes the two Republicans, Palin and Begich, won in the all-candidate first round. There were about 11,000 voters who didn’t rank a second choice on their ballot, referred to as ballot exhaustion. But voters have that right and might have done so because they didn’t like a second candidate.
That voters could rank their choices doesn’t mean they were disenfranchised – a term that suggests citizens were blocked from voting.
We rate this statement Mostly False.
RELATED: Why Trump is wrong to call Alaska’s ranked choice voting 'rigged'
RELATED: Democracy experts support Alaska’s move to ranked-choice voting. Here’s why
Sen. Tom Cotton, Tweet, Aug. 31, 2022
Alaska Division Elections, Special primary election results, June 11, 2022
Alaska Division of Elections, Special general election results, (unofficial results) Aug. 16, 2022
Sen. Tom Cotton op-ed in Arkansas Money and Politics, Ranked choice voting is a scheme to rig our elections, July 13, 2020
Ballotpedia, Arkansas Issue 5, Top-Four Ranked-Choice Voting Initiative (2020)
Alaska Public Radio, Here’s how Alaska’s first ranked choice election will be counted, Aug. 31, 2022
Anchorage Daily News, Early results in Alaska’s special U.S. House election show a close race, Aug. 18, 2022
AP, Groups in US State Get Creative to Help Voters With Election Changes, Aug. 13, 2022
Alaskans for Better Elections, Tweet, Aug. 31, 2022
Alaskans for Better Elections, Polling Shows Alaskan Voters Understand Ranked Choice Voting, Aug. 30, 2022
FairVote, Results and analysis from Alaska's first RCV election, Aug. 31, 2022
Sarah Palin, Statement on election, Sept. 1, 2022
Email interview, Caroline Rabbitt Tabler, Sen. Tom Cotton spokesperson, Sept. 1, 2022
Email interview, Lee Drutman, senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America, Sept. 1, 2022
Email interview, Dan Shea, Colby College professor of government, Sept. 1, 2022
Email interview, Tiffany Montemayor, Alaska division of elections spokesperson, Sept. 1, 2022
Email interview, Rob Richie, FairVote president, Sept. 1, 2022
Email interview, Jerry McBeath, University of Alaska political scientist, Sept. 1, 2022
Email interview, Glenn Daniel Wright, associate professor of social science University of Alaska Southeast, Sept. 1, 2022
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