Mary Peltola won by appealing to Alaskan interests and the electorate’s independent streak. But Alaska’s new voting system played a big role, too.

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This article is part of our Midterms 2022 Daily Briefing



By Blake Hounshell and Charles Homans

Mary Peltola, whose victory in a special election on Wednesday makes her the first Democrat in nearly half a century to represent Alaska in the House, won the contest for the remainder of Representative Don Young’s term with an upbeat campaign that appealed to Alaskan interests and the electorate’s independent streak.

But Alaska’s new voting system also played a big role in Ms. Peltola’s three-percentage-point victory over former Gov. Sarah Palin, her Republican opponent.

Ms. Peltola, who will become the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress and the first woman to hold the House seat, won at least in part because voters had more choices. While more voters initially picked a Republican candidate, that didn’t matter. Given a second choice, many Republican voters opted for a Democrat — Ms. Peltola — over Ms. Palin.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday night, Ms. Palin criticized the new voting system as “weird.” Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas called the system a “scam to rig elections” against Republicans.

But proponents of systems like Alaska’s say this is how it is supposed to work. When voters have more choices, they’re less likely to vote along strict party lines, reducing polarization and giving independent-minded or more centrist candidates a better shot.

The changes to how Alaskans choose their representatives in state and federal elections were decided on in 2020, when allies of Lisa Murkowski — the state’s senior senator, who ran in 2010 as a write-in candidate after losing that year’s Republican Party primary — promoted and bankrolled a ballot initiative that passed by a narrow margin — precisely 3,781 votes, out of more than 344,000.

The consequences for Alaskan politics, and for the country, could be seismic. New York, Maine and Utah also have some form of ranked-choice voting, as do dozens of American cities. But the Alaska approach — which combines ranked-choice voting across party lines with an instant runoff between several top candidates — goes further in disrupting political parties’ influence.

Second choices matter

In the first stage of the complex new system, voters in a primary pick from a list of candidates from all parties and ideological stripes.

The top four finishers then make the ballot for the general election, when voters rank up to four choices in order of preference: first, second, third and fourth — or none at all.

Over multiple rounds of what is known as instant runoff or ranked-choice voting, election officials first eliminate candidates with no chance of winning and then reallocate the second, third and fourth choices of their voters to others.

Nicholas Begich III, a Republican, failed to meet the threshold, meaning his votes were reallocated based on their second choices. But 15,000 voters who preferred Mr. Begich crossed party lines to select Ms. Peltola as their backup pick instead of Ms. Palin. A further 11,000 Begich voters opted for no second choice or another candidate. In total, that meant that nearly half of Mr. Begich’s voters, presumably Republicans, did not vote for Ms. Palin.

Scott Kendall, a leading proponent of the Alaska system, said in an interview on Thursday: “The campaign that Nick Begich ran was a clinic in how to have your party lose a ranked-choice election.”

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