Thursday morning Alaskans woke up to a flurry of texts, memes, and articles in response to news that Mary Peltola, a Democrat, had edged out Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich for the open US House of Representatives seat.
The meme Marked Safe from Sarah Palin was trending on Alaskan social media feeds in the immediate aftermath of the election results being announced.
“After the announcement, I could see sanity from my house!” commented one Alaskan on Facebook, a reference to Tina Fey’s impersonation of Palin on SNL. “No amount of lipstick was gonna make that pig look good,” offered another, alluding to one of Palin’s catchphrases during the vice presidential campaign. “I had totally given up on Alaskan politics,” Summer Christiansen, a writer and teacher in Juneau, commented. “So when I saw it, I truly didn’t believe it.”
Edging out Sarah Palin by a 3 percent margin in Alaska’s first ever ranked-choice election, Mary Peltola is set to become the first Alaskan Native member of Congress. She will also become Alaska’s first Democratic US representative in over 50 years and the first ever woman elected to represent the state in the House.
Nick Begich III, a wealthy businessman from a long-standing Democratic family (who nevertheless stood as a Republican), placed third. Half of all Begich voters ranked Palin second, while approximately 29 percent of Begich voters ranked Peltola second, giving Peltola the lead.
In a state that traditionally votes red, Palin believes her loss is attributed to Alaska’s “new crazy, convoluted, confusing ranked-choice voting system”.
“It’s effectively disenfranchised 60 percent of Alaska voters,” she told reporters Wednesday night, although no Alaskan was denied the right to vote. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) echoed Palin statements in a tweet, calling ranked-choice voting “a scam to rig elections.”
Ernie Hard, a conservative and Republican in Juneau, disagrees. Hard chose to not rank Palin at all and believes that “Peltola is a real person who cares about Alaska, the kind of person that is needed for representation for Alaska.” Peltola’s win, he adds, is especially impressive considering that Palin outspent Peltola four to one.
Another conservative voter who asked to remain anonymous agrees that voters knew exactly what they were doing at the polls. “My conservative friends didn’t rank her either,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any confusion there.” Although he considers himself “your worst Republican, because I don’t vote along party lines,” he likes Mary Peltola’s track record: “I’ll vote for her again when November shows up.”
Bob Griffin, a lifelong Alaskan in Anchorage, thought Palin had a good chance of winning and ranked her second after Begich. While he believes that voters were confused by ranked-choice voting, he does not agree that it was a factor in Palin’s loss. “Her biggest problem,” he said, “is that beyond her very dedicated cult-of-personality followers, she has very high negative ratings with a majority of everyday Alaskans. She literally has zero support from any state and local Republican Party elected officials and never received the endorsement of the Alaska Republican Party. In a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats two to one, she could not get enough local support to prevail.”
One of the benefits of ranked-choice voting is it prevents a showdown between two candidates of extreme, polarizing views. Bruce Botehlo, a former Alaskan attorney general, twice former mayor of Juneau, and current vice chair of Alaskans for Better Elections, believes that a top-four open primary, combined with ranked-choice, can lead to the likelihood of more moderates campaigning and being elected to office. “Needing to reach beyond their base would introduce a degree of civility that, particularly in the last three to four years, has been absent in the national, and, I would say, increasingly in the Alaska electorate,” he said. “The result is that a candidate for any given office will have achieved a majority of Alaskan support.”
Botehlo also worked to push through the ranked-choice initiative in 2020 and educate the public on how ranked-choice works. He cited polls indicating that 95 percent of the electorate felt they had a chance to be informed about the system and 80 percent found it to be simple.
Scott Crass of Fairbanks added, “Ranked-choice is simple and it’s a great fit for Alaskans where the majority of us are nonpartisan.” Mike Bucy in Juneau agrees: “Ranked-choice voting and open primaries are ideal for a less insane world.”
Suzanne Downing stated on her popular right-wing blog Must Read Alaska that several lifelong Republicans claimed to have ranked Peltola second, in order “to block Palin from office, because they found her too polarizing.”
Nona Dimond of Douglas said, “The Palin campaign sent out literature telling people not to rank Mary Peltola, so I’d say any confusion came from her own camp.” Krista Arvidson concurred: “Just because she is confused doesn’t mean we are!”
Libby Bakalar, city attorney of Bethel and writer of the humorous blog One Hot Mess, helped draft the ballot measure to enact ranked-choice voting, along with attorney Scott Kendall. Offering her thoughts on the new voting format, Bakalar said, “It’s a new way of voting, and like anything new, it will take some getting used to. But at the end of the day you are filling in a half dozen bubbles on one piece of paper with very clear instructions. Alaskans manage to complete detailed paperwork every year to get a PFD [permanent fund dividend]. This is much less confusing than that.”
Scott Bentley, a freelance writer, noted, “I’ve been talking about the benefits of ranked-choice voting since 2011. I’m not surprised Palin would deny the results. If ranked-choice voting spreads, I predict we’ll see more Republican losses and as a result we’ll see more Republicans denying the results, no matter how legitimate.”
Despite the setback, Palin has vowed to win the House seat in November. “I’m the last one who’ll ever retreat,” she stated Wednesday. “Instead, I’m going to reload. With optimism that Alaskans learn from this voting system mistake and correct it in the next election.”
When asked about how Alaskans feel about “correcting” this “voting mistake” in the November election, all voters this reporter spoke to offered cautious optimism that Peltola would defeat Palin a second time. “There is no doubt that Mary Peltola has the edge,” Botehlo said, “partly based on her personality, partly based on issues. One of those issues is where she stands in contrast to Republican opponents on women’s right to choose. I think that will play an important role in Alaska, just as it will nationally. And at least watching initial reactions to Begich and Palin attacking each other, that only works to Mary’s advantage.”
Bakalar added, “I’m afraid to make predictions. But I’m certainly hoping that Mary’s rising star, coupled with the incumbency edge, will put her in the full-term seat.”
Taylor Beard, a writer and mother in Juneau, said, “In some respects, it feels like [Peltola] will have a hard road ahead of her. Yet, considering that she won against the wall of money Palin threw at her, maybe it won’t be so difficult after all. It’s a shame that her ‘trial’ seat isn’t longer, but hopefully this will give her a leg-up for November.”
My anonymous conservative source believes that the odds in the November election are tipped in Peltola’s favor. “She stands a good chance because of the special election,” he conjectured. “If I take an unbiased viewpoint of Sarah, this is a person that left the state in the middle of her governorship. I don’t know how much I’d say she is committed to being an Alaskan, when I see her more in places like DC or on the travel circuit. She seems more ego-driven than wanting to effect policy change, [whereas] Mary is there to effect change.”
Aaron Woodrow, a conservative who tends to vote Republican, added, “I hope that the majority of Alaskans will know and understand [Palin] is unfit for any political office. She quit as governor citing too many legal problems. Since then and the McCain campaign, I’m pretty sure she’s been largely unemployed for the last 13 years. I would be cautious to hire anyone with that sort of resumé for a dishwasher job, let alone Congress or a House seat or anything political.”
For now, Botehlo considers ranked-choice voting a litmus test that needs to go through more election cycles in order to gauge the comfort and reaction of the public. “I think it will be interesting to watch how Palin and Begich respond,” he said. “How the roles of the parties shift, do their outreach, and their levels of civility. This is a test, too, for Alaska, and that test isn’t over yet.”