U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola testified before the Minnesota and Oregon legislatures on bills that would expand ranked choice voting in those states, a first for the winner of Alaska’s first ranked choice election held last year.
Peltola, D-Alaska, won both a special U.S. House election — after longtime Rep. Don Young died — and the regular November election, twice defeating two Republican opponents, including former Gov. Sarah Palin and businessman Nick Begich.
Since then, the outcome of those races has become a rallying cry for both opponents and proponents of ranked choice voting. Proponents say Peltola’s victory is a testament to a system that rewards coalition building over partisan pandering. Opponents say the victory of a Democrat over two Republicans — who together garnered a greater share of first-place votes — means that ranked choice voting circumvents the will of voters.
Now, Peltola’s deputy chief of staff Anton McParland said the congresswoman intends to speak about her experience in jurisdictions considering voting systems similar to Alaska’s.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if this is something that we continue to work on as it’s just an area that is of real significance to her,” McParland said in an interview Tuesday.
During her appearances in Oregon and Minnesota last week, Peltola made similar comments about what she saw as the voting method’s disincentivizing negative campaigning and rewarding candidates who veer away from partisanship.
“This is a good place for me to address the concern that ranked choice voting allows candidates to win based on complicated ballot math instead of traditional majorities. Honestly, nothing could be further from the truth. Broadly popular candidates still do well under ranked choice voting,” Peltola told a committee of the Oregon Legislature on Thursday, in virtual testimony that marked her first time speaking about ranked choice voting to lawmakers in another state considering the system. McParland said she was invited to speak by pro-ranked choice voting group Oregon RCV.
The following day, Peltola traveled to Minnesota, where she appeared in person before a Minnesota House committee and participated in a rally for ranked choice voting organized by FairVote Minnesota, a group advocating for the new voting system.
“It incentivizes candidates, while they’re campaigning, to build broad coalitions of support, and indeed in her case, she won with not just Democrat but Republican votes. That’s bipartisan coalition building,” said Jeanne Massey, director of FairVote Minnesota, explaining the group’s decision to invite Peltola to appear at the rally.
Peltola told lawmakers in both Minnesota and Oregon that the decision on whether or not to adopt ranked choice voting is up to the people in those states. But she spoke positively about the impacts of Alaska’s new voting system, first used in 2022, which she said helps elect more diverse candidates, including women and people of color. Peltola is the first Alaska Native person elected to Alaska’s congressional delegation.
Her appearances in Oregon and Minnesota came even as in Alaska, an effort is gaining steam to put the question of whether to keep ranked choice voting on the 2024 ballot. While Peltola’s victory has been portrayed as a success story by ranked choice voting advocates, one of her election opponents has become a spokesperson against it.
Palin, the former vice presidential candidate who decried ranked choice voting last year even as she was campaigning under it, has been raising funds in the Lower 48 for the Alaska ballot measure group seeking to repeal the state’s ranked choice voting and nonpartisan primary election system.
Art Mathias, one of the organizers of the ballot measure group, said Monday that the group had so far raised roughly $500,000 with Palin’s help and had already gathered thousands of signatures, though he did not have an exact number. The group must gather at least 26,000 signatures by February 2024 in order for the question to appear on the 2024 ballot.
Ranked choice voting was originally adopted in Alaska by a ballot measure that passed by a narrow margin in 2020. Even if the anti-ranked choice voting group, called Alaskans for Honest Elections, is successful in its efforts to get the ballot question certified, Alaska’s 2024 elections will be conducted under ranked choice voting unless the Alaska Legislature passes a bill repealing the system. State lawmakers have indicated that is unlikely.
Peltola told Minnesota and Oregon legislators that she practices “inclusive, big tent politics,” but conservative Republicans — accustomed to partisan primaries that often give them an edge over more moderate opponents — have pointed to her victory as evidence that Alaska’s new system could lock them out of office.
Mathias, who traveled to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland earlier this month, said the demand for repealing ranked choice voting in Alaska has been “incredible” and opponents of the system in other states are looking to its fate in Alaska as evidence of what might happen elsewhere.
His group has cited lower voter turnout and voter confusion as reasons to reject the voting system. Mathias also argued that the roughly 17,000 voters whose ballots were “exhausted” in the November U.S. House race, meaning they did not rank more than one or two candidates, had their votes “thrown away.”
But under ranked choice voting, often described as “instant runoff elections,” those votes were counted and those voters — most of whom were supporters of Begich — chose to sit out the final round because they did not indicate a preference between Palin and Peltola. The actual number of ballots not counted in November’s U.S. House race because they were filled out incorrectly was less than 500, or less than 0.2% of the total ballots cast.
Peltola told lawmakers in Minnesota and Oregon that reports of issues with Alaska’s new voting system were “negligible” and credited voter education efforts by the state Division of Elections and political parties for increasing voter understanding and participation. The Alaska Republican Party campaigned for voters to “rank the red,” but Palin failed to attract enough second-place votes to overtake Peltola in the final round of ranked choice tabulations.
Palin is not the only unsuccessful Alaska candidate to turn to fighting ranked choice voting after the 2022 election. Conservative Republican U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka, who came up short in her effort to unseat more moderate Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, launched a separate initiative to advocate against ranked choice voting in Alaska and other jurisdictions.
In Minnesota, Peltola told rally goers that ranked choice voting could be part of the solution to the growing divisiveness in U.S. politics that she said led to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“What that event said to me is we are too divided as a country,” Peltola said. “We cannot afford to see each other as enemies.”
McParland, Peltola’s campaign adviser, said the events of Jan. 6 were part of the reason Peltola decided to run for public office a decade after she had left the Alaska Legislature. Since being elected, he said, Peltola had been frustrated by the impacts of partisan politics on Congress.
“In this Congress, particularly, I think there’s been a significant amount of disappointment by the gimmicks and the messaging wars that make up a lot of daily life. Sometimes it feels like a lot of the bills on the docket are really just designed to become future attack mailers,” said McParland.
Peltola told the Minnesota House that under ranked choice voting in Alaska, “voters tended to elect candidates that had broad appeal and minimized negative campaigning.”
“I could not afford to alienate or ignore supporters of my opponents as their second- and third-choice votes were critical,” said Peltola.
Peltola said ranked choice voting does not punish conservative candidates, as some have suggested, citing Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s resounding victory in his second run for governor. Dunleavy — whom Peltola called “a very, very conservative Republican” — won reelection to the governor’s seat with more than 50% of the votes in a four-way race.