Alaska Voters Had Real Choices and Made Them

Every vote counted, with refreshing results.

It took more than two weeks but we have the results of the elections in Alaska. And they are, to say the least, interesting.

WaPo (“Lisa Murkowski and Mary Peltola win Alaska races, defeating Trump-backed opponents“):

Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola on Wednesday became the first Alaska Native to win a full term in Congress, securing reelection along with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who both defeated challengers endorsed by former president Donald Trump after state officials finished a final round of vote-counting.

Peltola, who made history with her August special election win, and Murkowski, a senator for two decades, led after earlier vote counts. But the centrist lawmakers’ victories were not clinched until Wednesday, when the Alaska Division of Elections redistributed votes under the state’s new ranked-choice voting system.


In the race for governor, Republican Mike Dunleavy won reelection with over 50 percent of the votes, avoiding the ranked-choice process.

Peltola and Murkowski had crossed party lines to endorse each other ahead of the election, forming an alliance rooted in the similar space they occupy on the political spectrum. Their wins cap an election season in which voters across the country tended to show a preference for incumbents in battleground races.

So, in an era of increasing calcification, we have three disparate results in simultaneous statewide elections:

  • The Republican governor was handily re-elected with a first-ballot majority
  • The Republican Senator was re-elected but with an instant run-off and with backing from the brand-new Democratic Representative
  • The Democratic Representative was elected to a full term with backing from the veteran Republican Senator over the former Republican Governor and Vice Presidential nominee

That’s rather extraordinary.

What’s even more unusual is that voters actually had a real choice in these contests.

Dunleavy got 132,392 votes, 50.3% of the total cast, in the first round and won outright. Democrat Les Gara got 63,755 (24.2%) and nonpartisan candidate Bill Walker 53,585 (20.7%). I didn’t follow the race closely at all and have no idea how Walker’s voters would have gone in a two-candidate race. But their votes weren’t “wasted”—had Dunleavy not won outright, those who designated a second choice would have had their votes counted every bit as much as those who ranked one of the major party candidates first.

In a traditional first past the post contest, Murkowski would have won anyway, as her 113,299 (43.4%) votes were a plurality of those cast. Trump-backed Republican Kelly Tbibaka came close with 111,283 (42.6%) of the votes but, rather obviously, had next to no residual support from those who voted for third-place finisher, Democrat Pat Chesbro, who got 27,108 (10.4%) of the first-round ballots. But, again, Chesbro supporters weren’t forced to play amateur pundit and guess that their votes would be wasted and they should therefore hold their noses and vote for Murkowski to avoid the Trumpist greater evil; they were able to vote their conscience and then have their vote reallocated to their second choice.

The House race was a rerun of the special election. The two Republicans, Sarah Palin and Nick Begich, accounted for a strong majority of the first-round votes, 67,732 (25.7%) and 61,431 (23.3%), respectively, compared to Democrat Peltola’s 128,329 (48.8%). Not surprisingly, most Begich voters (44,523) preferred the other Republican to the Democrat (8,564). But not enough of them! The defectors were enough to give Peltola a landslide victory.

What we’ll never know is how this last race would have worked out under Alaska’s previous system. It’s quite possible, perhaps even likely, that Palin, as the sole Republican nominee, would have squeaked out a victory. Psychologically, it’s very hard for a long-time Republican to vote for the Democrat over even an unpalatable Republican. But the ability to vote for a more traditional Republican in the first round and then cast a protest vote in the second round changes that dynamic. And, as a bonus, actually reflects the will of those voters better.

And, again: essentially the same voters preferred three different outcomes. 263,296 Alaskans cast votes for governor; 263,148 for US Representative; and 261,242 for US Senate. The Republican governor won easily, the Democratic Representative won a second-ballot landslide, and the once-unpopular Republican Senator won a second-ballot landslide. And Donald Trump lost yet another election.

FILED UNDER: 2022 Election, Comparative Democracies, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    For the advocates of RCV, that claim it will result in more moderate candidates, these elections lend support.

    In the senate, Murkowski will continue to be at the center of deal making between the Dem majority and the need to get to 60 votes. But are there 9 additional R votes that can be had to pass legislation?

    Looking at Peltola’s statements after her win, it is pretty obvious that she will be a pretty conservative Dem in the House, if not the most. She will run into conflict with the progressives over fossil fuels and mining among other issues. But that would be representing her constituency.

  2. de stijl says:

    I really like the concept of ranked choice voting. Especially in primaries. I haven’t dealt with it in real life or thought through the ramifications that hard.

    It mirrors real life in many ways. When I am deciding what to have for dinner. It’s never 100% Indian and 0% Italian. It’s a spectrum, not a binary. Real life is most often way more complex than 0 or 1.

    Besides, I have a quarter pound of ground beef that’s probably gonna go off in a day or two. I should use that up now. Maybe a quick burger or some tacos and some tater tots? Something more rib-sticky later?

  3. Kylopod says:

    @de stijl: I’ve been a fan of ranked choice for years, partly because it takes away the spoiler effect of third-party candidates and enables the winner the legitimacy of an absolute majority even in a large field. I also think it’s better than runoffs because (1) You don’t have to hold a second election (2) You don’t end up stuck with two bad candidates who eked out tiny pluralities in the first round.

    One of the drawbacks is that it can get fairly complicated, especially when applied to primaries. I have to admit I found the process confusing in the 2021 NYC primaries. I got to select five candidates for mayor, in order of preference. (The candidate who ended up winning, Eric Adams, wasn’t even on my list. I think there were seven in all.) Even the politics of the campaigns were complicated: The candidates were doing odd things like promoting one of their rivals in an attempt to manipulate the second-choice votes.

  4. MarkedMan says:

    Net-net I think RCV is a benefit. I’m not sure why but it certainly seems the spoiler effect puts in a lot more incompetents and loons than it keeps out.