With nearly all the votes finally counted, Alaska has approved a ballot measure that will implement ranked-choice voting in statewide elections. The passage of Ballot Measure 2 (by a 50.5 to 49.5 percent margin) makes Alaska the second state after Maine to adopt ranked-choice (or, as some call it, instant-runoff) voting. Alaska will also replace party primaries with a “top four” system, whereby everyone runs in a nonpartisan primary and the top four finishers proceed to a general election in which voters list choices in ranked order (up to four); as lower choices are eliminated, no one wins until someone has a majority.
It’s an interesting combination of reforms enabling both wide participation by candidates with no party imprimatur and limiting the influence of minor-party “spoilers,” who will be eliminated in the ranked-choice process.
In Maine, ranked-choice voting was strongly backed by Democrats who were tired of watching conservatives, like former governor Paul LePage, win pluralities with independent candidates on the ballot. And it was deemed a real threat to the reelection this year of Republican senator Susan Collins thanks to second-choice support for Democrat Sara Gideon among backers of the most prominent independent in the race. But Collins won an outright majority on Election Day, making ranked-choice voting moot.
In Alaska, the partisan impact of ranked-choice voting is less obvious, though the perennial strength of libertarians there may mean hidden support for Republican candidates, as fourth-, third-, and second-choice candidates are eliminated in the postelection “instant runoff” process. The traditionally underdog Democrats, who have sought to expand their appeal by nominating self-identified independents (such as this year’s Senate candidate, Al Gross), may welcome the top-four primary. But the biggest beneficiary of that reform may be Senator Lisa Murkowski (who is often paired with Collins, in part because they are the last two pro-choice Republicans in Congress), who is up for reelection in 2022.
For various reasons, Murkowski periodically arouses fury among Alaska conservatives. Most recently, Donald Trump pledged to campaign against her this summer after she publicly said she was “struggling” with her own vote in the presidential contest. Her peril was thought to have increased when she immediately questioned the rushed effort to confirm a third Trump Supreme Court nominee this fall. But then she ultimately voted to confirm Amy Coney Barrett, which may keep the wolves from her door. She has already beaten her party once, in 2010, when she managed to secure reelection as a write-in candidate after conservative Joe Miller beat her in the GOP primary. But a top-four primary will guarantee her a spot in the general election even if conservatives sour on her yet again.