Ranked Choice Voting – What Now?

In November 2020, Alaskan voters chose to completely rewrite the state’s election process by passing a ballot measure which will put in place  ranked-choice voting (RCV) for state and federal general elections. Alaska will be trading the “one person, one vote” model for a so-called “more choice and more voice” model. Unfortunately, other jurisdictions that have implemented ranked-choice voting have found they have less choice and less voice, as the evidence shows it creates barriers to voting. So, what can Alaskans expect now?

Worse Case Scenario: Here to Stay
Ranked-choice voting, also called “instant runoff,” could be here to stay. Unfortunately, research has shown that RCV leads to confusion, disenfranchisement, and lower voter turnout. RCV is a confusing system that can cause voters to make mistakes on their ballots or keep them from voting in the first place. The first time this new voting system will be used in Alaska is the November 8, 2022 General Election.

A separate change that was included and approved within the ballot measure means that for most races, the general election ballot will list four candidates. Obtaining enough information about each candidate to have a clear-enough preference to rank them is time-consuming and complicated – probably requiring more than most voters are willing to dedicate. Rather than supporting one candidate, RCV requires voters to mark all candidates on the ballot.

If voters choose to not rank – or mark – all four candidates on the ballot, or simply do so mistakenly (by forgetting to make a mark), their ballot may be “exhausted” or discarded, leading to disenfranchisement. In some cities where RCV has been tried, such as Oakland and Minneapolis, minority voters were more likely to not fully utilize their ballots, resulting in ballot exhaustion. A study on RCV in San Francisco found that minority groups whose primary language was not English were particularly susceptible to filling out their ballots incorrectly and being disenfranchised. This is significant in Alaska, where it is required to provide language assistance and ballots for at least 13 other languages for those voters whose primary language is not English.

That same study on RCV in San Francisco also found that voter turnout among black voters, white voters, younger voters, and voters without a high school education decreased after RCV was implemented. RCV clearly creates barriers to voting, particularly for groups of people whose voices are often in the minority or who are less likely to vote. Alaska needs all voices to participate in elections, not just “more voice” for those that already participate.

Repeal It
Many jurisdictions that have experimented with ranked-choice voting later repealed it. These include Burlington, Vermont; Aspen, Colorado; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Pierce County, Washington; and the state of North Carolina. In addition, there have been multiple attempts to repeal or amend RCV in Maine and the state of Massachusetts said “pass” to RCV during its 2020 election.

The Alaska State Constitution, Article XI, Section 6 allows the legislature to repeal ballot measures two years after the effective date of the initiative. Ranked-choice voting was approved in 2020, so after 2022, legislators could take up a repeal bill. However, by the time the legislature can repeal RCV, it will have been used in the 2022 election and the elected officials then in office would have been chosen using the new process. If they were victorious under the new system, they may not necessarily be inclined to change it.

Another repeal option is by way of a new ballot measure. Voters could introduce and pass a ballot measure that would repeal rank choice voting, in the same way that they approved it.

Additionally, while state lawmakers cannot repeal the law right away, they could introduce external guardrails that make ranked-choice voting less effective. For example, after Maine implemented ranked-choice voting in 2016, legislators introduced a bill that required RCV to be repealed if a constitutional amendment was not passed. A constitutional amendment was needed in Maine to accommodate ranked-choice voting because there was inconsistent language between the state’s constitution and the RCV bill – Maine’s State Constitution required a plurality of votes for a candidate to win an election and Maine’s RCV bill required a majority. Ultimately, this bill was dropped because of a people’s veto, which is the ability of Maine’s voters to repeal legislation via veto referendum.

Alaska has similar conflicting language between our state constitution and the ballot measure which passed. The Alaska State Constitution, Article III, Section 3 requires that “the candidate receiving the greatest number of votes shall be governor.” However, via the newly approved RCV system, the candidate with the majority of votes wins the election – a majority is more than 50 percent. It is possible to receive the greatest number of votes without a majority and vice versa. For example, in Maine’s 2018 Second Congressional District election the candidate with the greatest number of votes during the first round had 46.3% of votes. Because of RCV’s requirement for a majority, a second round of tabulation occurred, resulting in a different candidate ultimately winning the election, even though they had fewer first-choice votes (45.6%) than the top candidate. In this case, in addition to having fewer first-choice votes, the winning candidate did so without a true majority, due to exhausted ballots.

Finally, there could be lawsuits to challenge the new law in court. In fact, there is at least one already underway that has been filed in state court regarding ranked-choice voting. The plaintiffs argue that the ranked-choice voting model violates their rights “to free political association, free speech, right to petition, right to due process” and other rights guaranteed by both the Alaska and U.S. constitutions.

While many different things can happen before the next general election in November 2022, one thing is clear: Ranked-choice voting is not the way to empower voters in Alaska. The RCV model routinely disenfranchises some groups and disincentivizes voters from even turning up to the polls on Election Day. Additionally, election results via ranked-choice voting can end up not truly reflecting the voice of the people. Rather than giving “more choice and more voice,” ranked-choice voting tends to silence voices that have a right to be heard.