Alaska's first ranked choice election is on Tuesday. Here's what you need to know.
Aug. 13—Early Voting
After voters approved a ballot measure nearly two years ago changing Alaska's voting system, the state's first ranked choice election will take place Tuesday, with final results in the special U.S. House race expected no earlier than Aug. 31.
Three candidates are vying to replace Rep. Don Young, who died in March, as Alaska's next representative in Congress. That will be the only ranked choice election held on Aug. 16, which is also primary election day for the regular U.S. House term that begins in January, along with the U.S. Senate race, the governor and lieutenant governor race, and 59 state legislative races.
Early voting has already begun, and the Alaska Division of Elections had tallied more than 10,000 absentee ballots and 12,000 early voters as of Thursday afternoon.
"What we're seeing so far is that people are excited and they are motivated and they are coming out to vote," said Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, who oversees elections, in a news media availability six days before the elections.
But with a new voting system, new voting districts and a special general election taking place on the same day as the regular primary, election officials are concerned about lingering confusion.
[2022 Alaska election guide: Q&As with candidates for U.S. House, U.S. Senate and governor]
Here's a rundown of how Tuesday's primary election will work.
How to vote
Voters can vote early ahead of election day Tuesday, with information on voting places available on the Division of Elections website. On election day, hundreds of polling places will be open across the state. Because this is the first election conducted under newly drawn district lines, many voters' in-person polling places have changed. The Division of Elections mailed information on new polling places this week, and voters can also look up their polling place online at myvoterinformation.alaska.gov.
On election day, polling places will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Mary Peltola, House of Representatives, Congress, politics, elections, special election
The ranked-choice special U.S. House race is on one side of the ballot. The other side of the ballot will include all the pick-one primary races. The top four vote-getters in the primary races will advance to the November general election.
Unlike the June special primary, this election is not conducted by-mail, meaning that unless voters submitted an absentee ballot request, they will not receive one by mail.
Election officials have urged voters casting absentee ballots to send them by mail well before Election Day or drop them off in person at a post office and request that they be hand canceled. The ballots must be postmarked by election day to be counted.
"A lot of people wait to the last minute," Meyer said. "But we don't control the post office. That's a federal agency. So you don't want to wait until the last minute to mail your ballots."
Absentee ballots can also be dropped off at in-person voting locations through election day.
Unofficial results will begin to roll in once voting ends, with first returns expected around 9 p.m. and additional rounds of ballot counting throughout the night. Still, the winner of the special U.S. House race and the final primary results will not be known for at least two weeks, until the final ballots are received and counted.
"I always think it's not a good idea to predict a winner before you have all the ballots counted," said Gail Fenumiai, director of the Division of Elections.
When will we know who won?
The winner of the special U.S. House race will not be known for at least two weeks. That's because the Division of Elections must count every ballot before they begin the process of ranked choice tabulation. The division can accept ballots mailed from overseas voters until Aug. 31.
The three candidates on the special U.S. House ballot are Democrat Mary Peltola, Republican Nick Begich III and Republican Sarah Palin.
If the top vote-getter in the U.S. House race has less than 50% of the vote once all ballots are counted, the elections division will conduct ranked choice tabulation, using computer software. The division expects to certify election results on Sept. 2.
With Palin and Begich vying for the same conservative voters, polling and political insiders suggest that Peltola will lead in early returns. But that does not necessarily mean she will win; the winner won't be finalized until the last-place candidate is eliminated and their second-place votes redistributed among the remaining candidates.
In the pick-one primaries, the top four vote-getters will advance to the November general election. In all but one of the 59 legislative races, there are four or fewer candidates, meaning all will advance to the general election. In the U.S. House race, U.S. Senate race and governor's race, most of the top candidates are already known, based on party endorsements and fundraising figures.
Candidates in the U.S. House race include Democrat Peltola and Republicans Begich, Palin and Tara Sweeney. There are 22 candidates in the race.
Candidates in the U.S. Senate race include GOP incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Trump-endorsed Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka and Democrat Pat Chesbro. There are 19 candidates in that race.
[Coverage of Alaska's 2022 congressional elections]
In the governor's race, Republican incumbent Mike Dunleavy faces independent former Gov. Bill Walker and Democratic former state lawmaker Les Gara. Republicans Christopher Kurka and Charlie Pierce are challenging Dunleavy from the right, and one of them is likely to take the fourth spot in the race.
Ranked choice voting
Alaska will be only the second state to use ranked choice voting for all voters in a federal election, after Maine, which first implemented the method in 2018 for congressional races.
Like in Maine, Alaska has implemented a type of ranked choice voting called instant-runoff voting, or IRV. If a candidate receives more than 50% of first-place votes, they win the election. If not, election officials will run a tabulation — the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and voters who named that candidate as their first choice are then allocated to their second choice, if they marked on on their ballot. This process continues until one candidate breaks the 50% vote threshold.
After Maine's first ranked choice election in 2018 and while results tabulation was taking place, a losing U.S. House candidate filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to block the election results. The lawsuit was eventually rejected.
In 2020, a group of four Maine voters filed another federal lawsuit seeking to block ranked choice voting in that year's election. A U.S. District Court judge ruled that ranked choice voting is not contrary to the text of the U.S. Constitution.
Are similar lawsuits expected in Alaska? Anchorage attorney Scott Kendall was involved in drafting the state's new election rules and defending them in court. He says it's unlikely such lawsuits will be successful.
[Alaska Division of Elections: How rank choice voting works]
Asked about possible court challenges to Alaska's new voting laws, Kendall pointed out that the new election laws have already withstood challenges in state court and that there are no federal constitutional issues with ranked choice voting.
"Unless there's some sort of fact specific problem with voting, some sort of breakdown or election malconduct, if someone is just challenging the system, I think their prospects to halt the counting or tabulation are very very slim," Kendall said. "There are a lot of elections at different levels that use ranked choice voting that have been challenged, and it's always been upheld."
In Alaska, Republican lawmakers who did not support the election reform say they have accepted that it will be implemented this year, but they're already drafting state legislation to undo parts of the voting reform in the 2023 legislative session, including ranked choice voting.
In the special U.S. House race, Palin has taken her criticism of the system one step further, attacking ranked choice voting repeatedly in interviews and echoing statements made by former President Donald Trump during his visit to Alaska that sought, without evidence, to paint the new system as untrustworthy.
Still, backers of ranked choice voting say they're optimistic that voters will see the benefits rather than the downsides. Amanda Moser, who works for Alaskans for Better Elections — the same organization that promoted Ballot Measure 2 — says they already see value in the increased participation of voters in elections and the unprecedented number of candidates running in the nonpartisan primary elections.
Republican U.S. House candidate Sweeney, who came in fifth in the June special primary, was kept off the special general election ballot after third-place finisher Al Gross dropped out of the race. Sweeney is still in the running in the regularly scheduled U.S. House race and has said that winning in November is her focus. But on Thursday, she registered as a certified write-in candidate for the Tuesday election. She said in a statement that she had done so at the urging of her supporters, but under the state's election laws, her chances of prevailing in the special election remain improbable.
According to the Division of Elections, write-in candidates will be counted if all write-in candidates receive the highest number of first choice votes or a close second. There are currently six certified write-in candidates.
If the write-in candidates do not meet that threshold, all write-in candidates are eliminated and their votes will be redistributed to their second-place choice, if they listed one.
"The decision was not made lightly," Sweeney said in a statement Friday. "It was made only after repeated requests from supporters asking for the option to support a candidate more closely aligned with their values and beliefs."
Sweeney, a Republican, previously worked in the U.S. Interior Department under former President Trump. She is running as a pro-development, pro-choice candidate, a platform that puts sets her apart from the other candidates in the race. Her campaign has raised nearly $300,000, buoyed by endorsements from some of the largest Alaska Native corporations. A separate super PAC supporting her has raised $600,000.
Sweeney's campaign manager Karina Waller declined interview requests Friday and said Sweeney did not have any public campaign events that day.
The announcement caught other candidates in the special U.S. House race by surprise. Peltola, who cast her vote early in the Anchorage City Hall on Friday morning, was not aware that Sweeney had registered as a certified write-in candidate the prior evening.
"We think that we have some overlap with Tara voters and we've been intentionally trying to engage some of those groups of people, and we're going to be fighting for their second-choice support," said Anton McParland, Peltola's campaign manager, in an interview Friday.
Truman Reed, Begich's campaign manager, dismissed Sweeney's move.
"Not sure of her logic, or what her campaign strategy is and certainly don't see her write-in candidacy as much of a factor," Reed said in a written statement.
Palin's campaign manager, Kris Perry, did not respond to a request for comment.