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Alaska provides a sneak preview of the Better Voting Nevada Initiative

David Colborne
David Colborne

A few days ago, Alaska tried a small-scale experiment using a new voting system Nevadans may elect to try ourselves.

In the special election to replace the late Rep. Don Young (R-AK) held a few days ago, Alaska opted to use ranked-choice voting to select who will serve out the final few months of the deceased congressman’s term. At the same time, Alaska also held its primary election, which was conducted as an open primary — all candidates from all political parties were listed, each voter could vote once for their favored candidate, and, once the counting is complete (due to Alaska’s geographical size and transportation challenges, counting won’t be completed until Aug. 31), the top four vote recipients in each race will advance to the general election in November.

Interestingly, Alaska’s election gives us a sneak preview of the voting system being proposed in the Better Voting Nevada Initiative. The Better Voting Nevada Initiative — which, according to the secretary of state’s office, is the only initiative petition eligible to reach our ballots this year — seeks to replace Nevada’s existing closed primary, in which only Republican voters may vote for Republican candidates and Democratic voters may vote for Democratic candidates, with an open primary very similar to Alaska’s. Additionally, the initiative would implement a ranked-choice voting system in the general election, in which Nevada’s voters would be able to rank up to five candidates in each race, in order of preference, with each rank’s votes counted, from most preferred to least. 

To be enacted, the initiative needs to win a majority of the votes in both this election and the next election in 2024. A recent poll showed a 15-point plurality of Nevada voters support the substance of the initiative, though nearly a third of voters currently have no opinion either way.

Though neither Alaska’s existing primary election system, nor the ranked-choice system used during the special congressional election, are identical to the systems proposed in the Better Voting Nevada Initiative, there are enough similarities to draw useful comparisons. Alaska’s open primary, for example, is almost identical to the open primary proposed by the Better Voting Nevada Initiative — only instead of the top five candidates with the most votes reaching the general election as they would in Nevada, Alaska only permits the top four to advance. Meanwhile, the number of choices Alaskans can potentially choose using ranked-choice voting in their general elections is identical to the number of choices being proposed in Nevada — only, where Nevadans would have up to five printed candidates from the preceding primary to rank, Alaska allows voters to select from up to four printed candidates and a write-in candidate.

With that in mind, how does the election system proposed in the Better Voting Nevada Initiative look in practice?

From the voter’s perspective, the answer is not entirely dissimilar to what Nevadans have now. The open primary side of Alaska’s ballots looks similar to a Nevadan municipal election ballot — laundry list of candidates included — only with party registration noted in fine print below each candidate. The ranked-choice voting portion, meanwhile, includes clear instructions — rank as many or as few candidates as you like, fill in the oval for your first choice in the first choice column, fill in the oval for your second choice in the second choice column, and so on — and a straightforward list of candidates and their partisan party registration. Seeing both at the same time, it’s difficult to see how choosing one candidate from a list of 22 candidates (the number of candidates in Alaska’s congressional primary) would be substantially more complicated than marking whether Sarah Palin is your second or third choice for United States representative (I’d just leave her row blank). The ranked-choice list, which only has three names and a blank row for an optional write-in candidate, appears to me, at least, to be easier to read than the arm-length list of candidates on the primary portion of the ballot.

From the counter’s perspective, it’s true that counting ranked-choice ballots is considerably more conceptually complicated than counting traditional ballots — a point which has been raised in both Reno’s and Las Vegas’ most circulated newspapers. This objection would carry more weight, however, if there wasn’t a sizable movement in Nevada politics asserting that a 400-page doorstop of statistical make-believe was somehow more intuitive and accurate than letting computers count Nevada’s ballots.

Put more directly, if voters can claim to understand this:

Then they can understand ranked-choice voting, which only uses a little basic grade school-level arithmetic.

How does that arithmetic work out? Because Alaska hasn’t collected all of the ballots yet, all we know so far is it seems Alaska’s voters chose the same candidates as their first choice in both the congressional primary and the special election. As things currently stand, the Democratic candidate, Mary Peltola, has a modest plurality over her two chief Republican rivals, Nick Begich and Sarah Palin, in both the special election and the primary election for Alaska’s lone congressional seat — she has so far received a bit over 38 percent of the vote in the special election and a bit over 35 percent of the vote in the primary election. Until all of Alaska’s ballots are collected, however, it’ll be impossible to count the second ranks of the ballots cast for the least popular candidate. Assuming current percentages hold, that candidate is likely to be Nick Begich — because Nick Begich is a Republican, it’s possible many of his voters chose Sarah Palin, the only other Republican candidate in the special election, as their second choice. On the other hand, it’s also possible many of his candidates voted for Mary Peltola as their second choice instead, or simply left their second choice blank.

While Alaskans spend the rest of the month waiting for their election results to arrive by seaplane and dog sled (if it wasn’t already obvious, I’ve never been to Alaska), we can engage in some interesting counterfactuals closer to home.

For example, if Nevada already had the top-five open primary system proposed by the Better Voting Nevada Initiative and the vote totals somehow remained the same as they turned out in this reality, the five gubernatorial candidates who would be on our general ballots this year would be Democrat Gov. Steve Sisolak and Republicans Joe Lombardo, Joey Gilbert, Dean Heller, and John Lee. Would it matter if Democrat voters selected, say, Joe Lombardo as their second choice in the general election as insurance against a more extreme Republican candidate winning? (Only if Sisolak somehow received fewer votes than two Republican candidates, which is highly unlikely.) Would John Lee’s voters be more likely to choose Lombardo, a fellow Clark County politician, as their second choice, or would they be more likely to select Joey Gilbert as their firebrand-in-chief?

Looking at some other races, would Amy Tarkanian, wife of failed congressional candidate Danny Tarkanian, be as likely to speak out against some of the worst statewide candidates the Republican Party has ever fielded in a general election if her husband was still one of the top-five candidates for Congressional District 2? Would she even need to if someone other than partisan Republicans had a chance to vote against Michele Fiore and Sigal Chattah in the primary? 

Would failed senatorial candidate Sam Brown still be preaching unity and love at Adam Laxalt’s Basque Fry if he and Laxalt both advanced into the general election? Would he even be invited?

These, and so many other questions, will never be answered — not during this election cycle, anyway, and not during the next one, either, though it’s fun to speculate. One question we will get to answer this year, however, is whether this new election system works as well as its proponents say it will. Given the lackluster results our current system is producing, I can’t wait to find out.

David Colborne ran for office twice and served on the executive committees for his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is now an IT manager, a registered nonpartisan voter, the father of two sons, and a weekly opinion columnist for The Nevada Independent. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected].


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