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Alaska's voters vote on the election initiative

In a tight vote that totaled approximately 4,000 ballots, the Alaskans approved a move to co-run their elections with Maine by approving the Action 2 election initiative.

Action 2 fundamentally changes the way Alaska administers elections. Instead of two primary elections, in which each political party nominates a candidate for the November general election, the state will hold an open primary from which the top four candidates, regardless of party affiliation, proceed to the general election.

With ranked voting, voters can list candidates in the order of their preference.

"This is a victory for all Alaskans, regardless of political orientation," Shea Siegert, manager of the Yes to 2 for Better Elections campaign, said in a statement Wednesday. "We now have an electoral system that does justice to Alaska's independent stance by saying, 'To hell with politics, let's do what's right for Alaska. "

Alaska's outcome was a victory for campaigners who have argued that changing our choices could address bipartisanism and polarization and give third-party candidates a better chance at elected office. Opponents have warned that this could be a logistical headache, although the cities and states that have made ranked elections have so far conducted their elections without major problems. Massachusetts contemplated a similar bill this November but turned it down.

Ranked choice voting works like this: Instead of just When you select one of the candidates on the ballot, rank them from most preferred to least preferred. While it is new to the US, it has been used successfully in Australia and Ireland for a century.

The idea is that this will allow voters to choose their preferred favorite candidate. Most of the United States has a first-past-the-post electoral system in which the candidate who receives the most votes becomes president. First-past-the-post systems incentivize strategic voting (not your favorite candidate, but your preferred candidate with a real win), and they have spurred the rise of a two-party system like the one in the US.

And while first-past-the-post voting systems aren't the only factor that led to the two-party system or the increasing polarization of America, they certainly contributed to it. First-past-the-post systems mean that third-party candidates rarely win, even if many voters prefer them. Every voter expects that voting for a third party is a “throwing away” of their vote.

Imagine a person choosing between President Donald Trump, Democratic candidate Joe Biden, Green candidate Howie Hawkins, and Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen. Our hypothetical voter likes both Hawkins and Jorgensen better than Biden, but would rather win Biden than Trump.

In the First-Past-The-Post vote – the voting system that most Americans voted in that election – our hypothetical voter may feel compelled to vote for Biden. In a ranked election, they would (for example) list Hawkins first, Jorgensen second, Biden third, and Trump fourth. When the ballot papers are counted, the ballot papers eliminate the candidate with the fewest votes in first place and "move" their vote to the candidate in second place.

You can see how it works on this Maine ballot that held the first ranked general state election in November.

David Sharp / AP Photo

As a result, third party candidates get more votes because voters don't feel like they are throwing their vote away by supporting them. And the process generally favors candidates who many voters consider acceptable over polarizing candidates who many voters hate.

"A ranked vote rewards candidates with the broadest appeal because the candidates compete for second and third elections as well as their first election," wrote Lee Drutman, electoral reform expert, 2019 Vox Voting, Campaigns Are More Civil. Priority voting could also increase the representation of women and minorities, who appear to benefit if electoral conditions promote coalition formation.

This is a particularly big deal in Alaska, where independents make up 57 percent of registered voters but only have three seats in the state legislature.

Another implication of Election 2 is that Alaska's moderate Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski is less at risk of right-wing priority treatment – which happened in 2010 when a more conservative Republican won the party's nomination, forcing Murkowski to lead an unprecedented successful party Enrollment campaign to keep your place. In a ranked voting system, Murkowski only needs to be one of the top four candidates in the primary to be promoted to the general election.

A growing conversation about how we vote

Ranked choice voting is used around the world, but until two decades ago – when San Francisco took it over – it was rarely used or discussed in the US.

US campaign experts, concerned about the increasing polarization and disillusionment among voters, encouraged other cities and states to adopt them. It worked out fine in San Francisco, and other cities signed up. Eventually the movement reached the national stage: in 2018, Maine became the first state to hold a ranked election. In 2019, New York City also signed. In the 2020 election cycle, the presidential candidates Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bennet approved this.

These early adopters give us a glimpse into some important questions about ranking voting. Critics in particular have feared that it will be more difficult for the polling station to compile tables, and that doing so will confuse voters or lead to corrupt ballot papers.

No such issues were reported in this year's ranked primaries, and ranked voting works fine in many other countries. However, Maine's high statewide turnout in the 2020 general election was the first time the system had been in the spotlight for most Americans. With both Maine and Alaska voting by choice now, this method of conducting elections may prove that it works – or not – in combating increasing polarization.

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