Updated at 4:50 p.m. ET on September 1, 2022.
Mary Peltola was declared the winner of Alaska’s special congressional election last night, defeating the former GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. A Democrat hasn’t held the seat in 49 years, and Peltola will be the first Alaska Native elected to Congress.
The election was the first in Alaska to utilize ranked-choice voting, a system adopted by the state’s voters in 2020. If no candidate reaches 50 percent support, the lowest-ranked candidate is eliminated and their votes go to the second-ranked candidate on their voters’ lists. This continues until one candidate has at least 50 percent. After the Republican candidate Nick Begich was eliminated in the second round of counting, Peltola ended up with about 52 percent of the vote. Ranked choice is more efficient than holding a runoff election, and its backers insist that it offers a better reflection of voters’ preferences.
But here’s the problem: The Republican candidate didn’t win, and Peltola’s remarkable victory instantly sparked complaints from Republicans that the election had been “rigged,” echoing former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric from July. Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas immediately tweeted, “Ranked-choice voting is a scam to rig elections.” Cotton elaborated in a second tweet that “60% of Alaska voters voted for a Republican, but thanks to a convoluted process and ballot exhaustion—which disenfranchises voters—a Democrat ‘won.’” Separately, the political writer Josh Kraushaar argued that ranked-choice voting “is so inscrutable to your average voter that it will only fuel the conspiracy theories that have defined elections in recent years.”
This is a bit like arguing that denying a toddler ice cream for dinner will only fuel a temper tantrum, except that Republican elites who choose to announce that elections they don’t win are fraudulent are adults and should be held responsible for their choices. Conspiracy theories are not “being fueled”; people like Cotton are fueling them.
There is nothing inherently wrong with opposing ranked-choice voting. There’s also nothing wrong with arguing that a particular set of rules is unfair, or might skew the outcome in one direction or another. People will come to different conclusions about the most fair or efficient way to run elections. That’s all a normal part of democracy. The difference here is that Alaska’s system is not being evaluated on the basis of whether or not it results in a fair election, but whether it produces a GOP victory. If it does not, then the system is corrupt by definition.
For Trumpists, no system that results in a Republican defeat can be considered legitimate, a belief that manifested in the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. (To Cotton’s credit, unlike many other ambitious conservative senators, he rejected Trump’s election conspiracies then.) Before losing the California gubernatorial-recall election last year, Republicans were already announcing that the outcome had been “rigged,” rhetoric, as The New York Times noted at the time, that “reflects a growing instinct on the right to argue that any lost election, or any ongoing race that might result in defeat, must be marred by fraud.” Otherwise, how could a Democrat win an election in California?
It’s amusing to hear Republicans devoted to the Electoral College argue that the person who gets the most votes should win the election, and that anything else amounts to disenfranchisement. Everyone knew the rules of this election before it was held. A majority of Alaskan voters might have preferred to support a Republican in theory, but they did not prefer Palin, the actual Republican candidate they ended up with. States are not party fiefdoms that are inherited by whatever empty suit the Republican National Committee sticks on the ballot. A majority of Alaskan voters preferred the Democrat. The fact that this could happen in a state as conservative as Alaska is really the GOP’s failure.
That conservatives are embracing majoritarian arguments to argue against ranked-choice voting is nevertheless illuminating, because it shows that they believe in majoritarianism only where Republicans can expect a majority. Otherwise, they seem to believe, some sort of electoral system is necessary to properly weight the votes of conservative constituencies so that they count more than everyone else’s. As the only true Americans, they’re entitled to win every election every time. Anything else is just election rigging.
This article previously misidentified the Republican candidate Nick Begich as former Democratic Senator Mark Begich of Alaska.