N=1 Means, Well, Not a Lot

No one should draw conclusions about RCV from the AK special election.

So, I have seen here and there folks proclaiming their love for ranked choice voting based on the special election for the US House of Representatives in Alaska. I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of positive responses I am seeing (and I don’t mean just at OTB) are because Palin lost, and even more significantly, a Democrat won as much as any hard evidence about RCV itself.

Likewise, I suspect that a lot of good vibes have been generated simply because AK’s Top Four system is a reform and since a lot of folks, myself included, are reform-minded, this may seem like a big win in general (more on that in below).

Still, I can’t help but caution that this is a singular event and must stress that fact just because it represents a result that a lot of people wanted and doesn’t prove anything about RCV itself.

I would note a couple of things to think about.

First, if this had been a standard plurality contest, Pelota would have won, since she did get the most votes.

Second, this would not be an especially unusual outcome under standard US plurality winner rules, since this three-way race featured two Rs and one D, hence splitting the R vote. This fact makes Tom Cotton’s bleating on this quite rich.

“60% of Alaska voters voted for a Republican, but thanks to a convoluted process and ballot exhaustion — which disenfranchises voters — a Democrat ‘won,'” Cotton said in a separate tweet.

I will note that this is a nonsense criticism since not only would Peltola have won under plurality rules, but more importantly all voters were able to have their say in this process–that’s one of the major plusses of RCV. I will ask if this means that Cotton is now on board for Electoral College reform?–after all, in 2016 more voters wanted Clinton than Trump (both head-to-head and in the summing-of-opposition way that Cotton is doing here).

Third, of course, under RCV it might be expected that the Begich’s second place votes would be overwhelmingly for Palin, but that ended up not being the case (although the vast majority were):

Indeed, proponents of RCV tell us that it is most likely to pick the most moderate candidate. In this contest, the more median candidate would have been Begich, but he came in third. Again, N=1, so I am not saying this proves much of anything, but it is still worth noting. As I noted the other day, Palin’s unpopularity is a key issue here. We also need to add the following point to this calculus.

Fourth, while it may not have mattered, it is worth noting that this was supposed to be a top four contest, not top three. The fourth-place candidate, Republican Tara Sweeney, dropped out. Having a third Republican in the race could have led voters to make different first and second-place choices, and could have brought third place votes into play. I point this out again, not because I have any reason to think it would have changed the outcome necessarily, but to point out that it could have–it certainly would have changed the math at various stages. I also note this because it seems unlikely that it will only be a three-way race after the November round in the general election.

In terms of unlikely outcomes, I would also note that while Alaska is a red state, it only went 52.8% for Trump and it has a history of non-trivial third-party voting. It had an independent governor from 2014-2018–a former Republican who ran a fusion ticket with a former Democrat. The uncle of Nick Begich was a Democratic Senator from 2009 to 2015. And I have noted before the ability of Lisa Murkowski to win a write-in campaign for Senate. It just isn’t a great state to use to make extrapolations in general, in my view (and I would emphasize its rather small population). I note all of this because it stuck in my head that a commenter in a previous thread referred to the state as “ruby red” and I am not sure that is accurate (although, granted, exactly how much it takes to be “ruby” is a legitimate question–that strikes me as a better descriptor for Alabama and Mississippi–but again, hardly a term of art, so ruby is in the eye of the beholder).

At any rate, the process was interesting and the outcome is certainly better news for Democrats than they might have been excepting. What it bodes for November, however, is unclear but I do agree it is another data point that suggests that the national political climate is more favorable to Democrats than was assumed not that long ago. Still, I maintain that the probability remains that the Rs take the House.

I was also going to note that while I am a clear advocate for electoral reform, I am not all that enthusiastic about things like Top Four (or Top Two as they have in CA) and do not think that RCV in single-seat districts is likely to produce much in terms of change. Ironically, all of this is likely to further weaken our already weak parties and since a good bit of our dysfunction is due to single-seat districts, this really doesn’t solve core problems. I will likely address this in another post as time permits.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2022, Democratic Theory, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Moosebreath says:

    Aren’t we at N=2, including Maine’s second district?

    Still a small number, but…

  2. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    What the numbers show me is that the GQP probably needs to bring back some political slogans from past times:

    “It’s better to be Red than Dead.”

    [More of an adaptation] “Don’t become part of a Second Amendment Solution; vote Right, stay Right.”

    “Blue is the color you turn when you’re dead.”

    Stuff like this could make a difference.

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  3. Gustopher says:

    To me, the best part of ranked choice voting is that at some level the majority of voters found the winner to be acceptable. Maybe not preferred, but acceptable.

    I’m surprised a Republican didn’t win this race with RCV, but either Palin is that toxic, or 11,222 exhausted ballots were cast by people who didn’t understand RCV (if I am following the numbers, the final victory is less than that… but following numbers is hard) and the opportunity it provides them.

    This outcome will, presumably, educate any confused voters on the need to fill in the 2nd choice.

    The n=2 I am most interested in is the November race for this same district.

    (I expect Republicans to win the seat in November, because that’s what should happen with the partisan breakdown, but… Palin is Palin)

  4. @Moosebreath: I was referring specifically to people drawing conclusions from AK.

    But, yes, other evidence does exist elsewhere.

  5. @Gustopher:

    To me, the best part of ranked choice voting is that at some level the majority of voters found the winner to be acceptable.

    I don’t disagree with that at all. My critiques, which I will come back to, is that even though it is an improvement, the structure of the district is still the most important variable.

    And these Top X combos further erode the coherence of parties and it becomes a true self-nomination free-for-all. More on that later.

  6. Kathy says:

    I didn’t vote in 2018 because His Majesty was far ahead in the polls, and the two other candidates split the rest of the vote. Had there been ranked choice voting, I’d have voted for either of them in first and the other in second, plus the minor candidates who stand no chance after that.

    It would have made no difference, because Manuel Andres wound up taking a majority of the vote, but there was no way of knowing that ahead of the election.

    The other reason is that due to some administrative quirk, I got assigned a polling place about 25 km from my place. I didn’t feel like driving that far to cast a meaningless vote. Since then I got it sorted out and now I vote closer to home.

  7. Michael Cain says:

    Given experience of the last few years on liberal ballot initiatives passing in states with a red or even deep-red legislature , I am surprised that the national Republican party is not working harder to get them declared unconstitutional.

  8. Andy says:

    I was also going to note that while I am a clear advocate for electoral reform, I am not all that enthusiastic about things like Top Four (or Top Two as they have in CA) and do not think that RCV in single-seat districts is likely to produce much in terms of change. Ironically, all of this is likely to further weaken our already weak parties and since a good bit of our dysfunction is due to single-seat districts, this really doesn’t solve core problems. I will likely address this in another post as time permits.

    Sure, but the fact of the matter is that single-seat districts are not going to go away. And since Alaska is small in terms of population, it is a de facto single-seat district – there’s no gerrymandering going on there.

    But the goal, IMO, should be to make improvements to the existing system since single-seat districts are baked in. RCV is still an experiment, but it’s a necessary one, even if it turns out to be a failure in the end.

  9. Jen says:

    @Michael Cain: I’ve wondered this myself. Not a lawyer, but an extremely vague recollection of my con law classes would seem to point to a potential challenge under one person/one vote but I’m not quite sure how.

  10. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: I was surprised at the numbers to be sure, but I read the exhausted ballots issue as people who only want their candidate and/or don’t care who wins after their candidate loses. We’re a larger group than the RCV advocates understand us to be and not all of us have given up and stay home–only the ones for whom all the candidates are non-starters.

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  11. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Cain: I think it’s easier and less authoritarianesque to start voter education reminding your team that “we only vote for people with an “R” after their names.” As I understand the system–which is not well at all–you can get to 50%+1 either by moving the voters to a new candidate or by shrinking the pool as voters who’ve “exhausted” their choices drop out.

  12. Kylopod says:

    I don’t necessarily disagree with your post overall, but there are a few points I think deserve clarification.

    First, I think it’s condescending and unfair to suggest that many of us are jumping on the ranked-choice bandwagon simply because of one race that went our way. My impression is that most people here have been pretty familiar with ranked choice for years, especially since 2018 when it was quite prominently used in Maine’s 2nd district.

    Second, as I pointed out in the other thread, it’s important to realize that the way ranked choice is done in Alaska, where two candidates from the same party can run in the general election, isn’t the way it’s usually done. Of course Tom Cotton was incorrect in implying there was a spoiler effect in which Begich and Palin split the Republican vote, but this wouldn’t even be an issue for the ranked-choice elections we’ve seen in Maine and NYC.

    Finally, I think you’re underestimating how unusual it is for a Democrat to win statewide in Alaska today. Alaska is traditionally a pretty strongly Republican state. It hasn’t always been this way; in fact prior to statehood it was somewhat Democratic-leaning, and for a period of time after statehood it was probably what today we’d call a purple state. But it shifted to being strongly red by about the mid-1970s. It’s gone Republican by double digits in every presidential election from 1972 to the present, apart from the fluky three-way race of 1992 when Bush won 39-30 with Perot very nearly beating Clinton for second place. Also, you allude to Mark Begich’s Senate win in 2008 to refute the idea that it never votes for Dems. But Begich was running in a very strong Democratic year, and it depended on the incumbent Ted Stevens being convicted on corruption charges shortly before the election. And even then, Begich only beat him very narrowly. That was the only Democratic Senate win in the state since Mike Gravel in the ’70s. That does not strike me as good evidence that Alaska is normally open to voting for Dems.

    It should be noted that Biden’s 2020 performance in the state is probably the best for a Democrat since the 1960s. He won 42.77% of the vote, definitely the highest overall percentage in this period, and Trump’s 10-point margin of victory is the narrowest for a Republican except for the aforementioned fluky 1992 race. So it’s possible we’re seeing the beginning of a shift in Alaska politics toward the Democrats, but it’ll take awhile before we know for sure or whether it’s a significant enough shift to matter.

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  13. Ken_L says:

    First, if this had been a standard plurality contest, Pelota would have won, since she did get the most votes.

    Surely in a “standard plurality contest”, there would only have been one Republican candidate. It was having two candidates from the same party that made the result so peculiar. I expect that it won’t take long for the parties to take steps to ensure this can’t happen, probably by changing their rules to introduce an internal pre-primary which will allow one and only one party candidate to contest the official nonpartisan primary. An unanticipated result of the introduction of RCV may be to give the party machine more influence over candidate choice.

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  14. @Andy:

    Sure, but the fact of the matter is that single-seat districts are not going to go away.

    I am going to risk sounding terse, if not grumpy, and note that I am well aware of the probabilities of change. But the likelihood of change does not change the diagnosis one iota.

  15. @Kylopod:

    First, I think it’s condescending and unfair to suggest that many of us are jumping on the ranked-choice bandwagon simply because of one race that went our way. My impression is that most people here have been pretty familiar with ranked choice for years, especially since 2018 when it was quite prominently used in Maine’s 2nd district.

    Nonetheless, I am seeing that reaction. It may well be that no one at OTB falls into that category and if one doesn’t, cool.

  16. @Kylopod:

    Finally, I think you’re underestimating how unusual it is for a Democrat to win statewide in Alaska today

    And I think you are overestimating the degree to which AK is not a normal case.

    But I don’t disagree that this is significant.

  17. Gustopher says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: I think attempting to guess the motives of voters behind the exhausted ballots is reading tea leaves.

    And I think that having the election go to the Democrat may change their strategies going forward.

    I have no doubt that there are some people who were not willing to sully their good onscience by voting for Palin or Peltola. Whether it is more or less than don’t understand the system, or cannot be bothered to do the system… who knows.

    I would give any explanation a very low confidence factor, barring more information (but I’m sure you’re wrong. 😉 ).

  18. Kylopod says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Nonetheless, I am seeing that reaction. It may well be that no one at OTB falls into that category and if one doesn’t, cool.

    Seeing the reaction where? I’m curious.

    And I’m not saying there aren’t any Democrats anywhere with the behavior you’re describing. But I just find it frustrating whenever I hear this type of response of cynically dismissing people’s positions based on assuming they’re only engaging in predictable partisan behavior. I know it wasn’t your intention and that you’ve been an electoral-reform advocate for years, but it just contributes to this environment where we can’t have a serious discussion on the topic, where the moment I, as a Democrat, bring up something like ranked choice, I invariably get the response “You’re just saying that because it helped your party.” It’s a conversation dead-ender because it’s completely unfalsifiable.

    I’ve been interested in the subject of electoral reform probably going back to the 2000 election. There is some partisan incentive there; I don’t deny it. But it shouldn’t invalidate my position. And one of the most important aspects of how the Republican Party has shifted in this century is that it’s moved increasingly toward weaponizing the status quo of the US electoral system in order to create effective minority rule. Their turning against democracy in the past two years isn’t just the result of one strongman who couldn’t admit defeat. This was decades in the making. They didn’t need to be anti-democracy in the ’80s when they were getting all those massive landslides.

  19. Kari Q says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I’ve seen a map showing Idaho, Tennessee, Ohio, and Texas all blue, claiming that would happen if ranked choice voting was allowed. It’s being used as a rallying point both for and against. I don’t think the map is based on any data, especially since it still shows Florida and North Carolina as red and they are far more likely to vote for a Democrat than either Idaho or Tennessee.

    Long-winded way to say, Steve is right that a lot of people are for it thinking it will help their side.

  20. Kylopod says:

    @Kari Q:

    I’ve seen a map showing Idaho, Tennessee, Ohio, and Texas all blue, claiming that would happen if ranked choice voting was allowed.

    In the words of Abe Lincoln, “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”

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  21. @Kylopod: Let me acknowledge your general point, because as you note, I am clearly not opposed to electoral reform, quite the opposite.

    And let me further note that my main point is not to extrapolate too much from one case.

    I will say that my impression, which perhaps is not fair, in some of the responses I have seen to this is that a lot of people, in the context of election season, not to mention significant consternation about the state of the Republican Party are, in my view exhibiting some irrational exuberance, shall we say, about RCV.

    There is also a broader context in which there is too much stock being put into RCV as a solution to our political problems (such as what @Kari Q notes above). It is even true that some in the long-term reform camp as treating it almost like a magic bullet, but it simply isn’t.

    Regardless, I see where you are coming from and my main point is not to draw too many conclusions from this single event about either RCV or 2022 (while acknowledging that yes, in the 2022 context in particular, it is a positive sign for Dems and a big deal in general).

  22. @Ken_L:

    An unanticipated result of the introduction of RCV may be to give the party machine more influence over candidate choice.

    Quite the opposite. The Top X systems essentially eliminate any control over party labels.

  23. Andy says:

    I have seen some partisan triumphalism regarding RCV and the AK election. Partisans are gonna partisan. I think if the roles were reversed and a GoP candidate won in a blue state under the same conditions, then the narratives taken by each side would be much different.

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I am going to risk sounding terse, if not grumpy, and note that I am well aware of the probabilities of change. But the likelihood of change does not change the diagnosis one iota.

    Maybe not. But I think one must consider practicalities if one wants any movement at all. Could me misperception on my party, but a lot of your focus on unobtainable solutions seems like the perfect being the enemy of the good. And in terms of process, intermediate reforms will be required if one ever hopes to achieve the changes that you desire.

    Quite the opposite. The Top X systems essentially eliminate any control over party labels.

    If there are no other reforms, then yes, that’s true. Same with RCV – none of these are “one neat trick” solutions, and to make them actually effective and (hopefully) better than the current alternative will likely require other reforms, such as limiting each party to a single candidate in the general election financing and primary reforms.

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  24. Ken_L says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: As I suggested, a party could fix this by amending its own rules to choose one and only one candidate for the primary.

  25. @Andy:

    But I think one must consider practicalities if one wants any movement at all

    Were I grassroots reformer or head of a nonprofit trying to figure out short-term reform and the thing I glommed onto was dealing with single-seat districts, you would have a point.

    But I am a guy making a systemic diagnosis (and one who has repeatedly noted what reforms are, to use a phrase from a lengthy post on this topic, Reforms: the Possible, the Improbable, and the Unpossible. I put significant electoral reform in the “improbable” category and defined that category as follows:

    These all would require a constitutional amendment (or potentially amendments in the case of #2), which would mean 2/3rds in both chambers and 3/4th of state legislatures. Further, only #1 even part of the national conversation.

    Note the “impossible” category was things like major Senate reforms or shifting to parliamentarian (just to give you an idea of the categories).

    My view is this: if you go to the doctor and he finds out you have both a sinus infection and a form of cancer that is probably not going to be cured, but there are some long-shot possibilities, you are going to want to know about the cancer and the options, not simply have your sinus infection treated because that’s relatively easy.

    I know people think telling me how impossible change is is just being practical. To me, is it a denial of the diagnosis.

    I also firmly believe that even if you can’t fix the problem, understanding the full nature of the problem is essential when trying to figure out the best courses of action about what you can fix.

    If you can’t cure the cancer it is possible the treatment for other ailments is affected by knowing that the patient has cancer.

  26. @Ken_L: In theory, kind of. Keep in mind that there is no central control of this issue, so it would be up to state-level parties to change their rules, so it would be a piecemeal affair (plus primaries are run by states, and the laws of given states might come into play).

    So far, the Top Two examples have just led to a label free-for-all. I expect the same to be the case in other Top X states.

  27. @Andy:

    If there are no other reforms, then yes, that’s true. Same with RCV – none of these are “one neat trick” solutions,

    Well, indeed. Although you need to tell that to some of the advocates of this kind of reform, not me. A lot of advocates seem to think that RCV is a solution because they continue to misunderstand the median voter theorem and because they don’t understand the core role of single-seat districts.

    Which is why I keep pointing it out.

  28. Kylopod says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Also, just because something is not possible in today’s climate doesn’t mean it will never happen. Imagine telling someone in the 1980s that gay marriage would be legal across the entire country within less than 40 years. But it will never happen if you don’t get the conversation started.

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  29. @Kylopod: Indeed.