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Candidates & Strategy Managers Should Campaign Collaboratively in RCV Elections, or Risk Losing

By Elizabeth Melson, FairVote Virginia President

Ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff, is a non-partisan reform. It doesn't boost one party over the other. It rewards the candidate that reaches out to the most voters.

Don't let anyone tell you that Sarah Palin lost in Alaska because of ranked choice voting. She lost because she did not campaign in a way that would maximize the results for herself and the Republican Party. In fact, she actually did better than other Republican candidates in recent Special Elections across the country.

According to Jon Pudner, of TakeBack Action "These losses could be a blessing in disguise for the GOP, as often the party that loses a handful of special elections learns to adjust how they frame key issues so they win the races that really matter - in November. However...despite the fact that Palin came 6 points CLOSER to winning due to the ranked-choice 2nd ballot, some groups are raising money by pretending that ranked-choice voting hurt her."

Pudner continues, "Without Final Four Voting, and specifically the ranked-choice ballot for the general, Palin lost by 9 points - 40.2% to 31.3% - in the first round of tabulation. Because the state used ranked-choice voting/instant runoffs, voters for the extra conservative candidate (Republican Nick Begich) were able to pick their second choice. Palin received 27,042 of those voters' second choice votes to only 15,445 second place votes for Democrat Mary Peltola to close the margin to 91,206 to 85,987.

It is likely Palin would have won if she had encouraged Begich supporters to list her as their second choice, but she did just the opposite by putting out a video showing herself voting for only one candidate...

In turn, instead of looking at the obvious trend of Republicans dropping about 10 points in races the last two months, some conservative talk show radio hosts blamed the very ranked-choice voting system that actually boosted Palin from a 9-point loss to a 3-point loss. None of the other five races in which conservatives lost ground involved ranked-choice voting.

Furthermore, in these races, the conservative vote dropped an average of just as much as it did in Palin’s race. If Begich voters hadn’t been encouraged to turnout (because he was on the ballot as he would NOT have been if ranked-choice voting was not used), they may have just stayed home and those who did rank Palin second wouldn’t have helped her get as close as she did to winning...

Unfortunately, the only case in which it doesn’t help the Republican is when a candidate actually tells voters not to rank them second. And that’s exactly what Sarah Palin did, and what she should not do if she runs in the main election in November to take back the seat."

I appreciate John Pudner's explanation and commentary. Candidates can help educate voters about ranked choice voting, by explaining the process on the campaign trail. They can work with a similar candidate and ask their supporters to rank the other candidate second. Some organizations did encourage voters to vote for more than one candidate. For example, the "rank the red" campaign encouraged voters to vote for the Republican candidates for first and second choice. RCV works best when voters fully express their preferences and candidates don't mislead voters by telling them to bullet vote (vote for one only).

According to Rob Richie of FairVote, this was a highly competitive race, "Though some pundits are framing Democrat Mary Peltola’s win as an ‘upset,’ it is unsurprising given everything we know about how to win RCV races. The candidate who leads after the first round of counting typically wins in the final round, especially if they have run an inclusive campaign. In this case, Peltola held a strong lead after the first round, with 40.2% of first choices compared with 31.3% for Republican Sarah Palin and 28.5% for Republican Nick Begich.

This special congressional election was exciting not just because Alaska has joined Maine in being the first states to use ranked choice voting in general elections for Congress in American history, but also because it was extremely competitive - with a margin of just 51.5% to 48.5% in the final round. For the rest of this term, Mary Peltola will be the first Alaska Native to ever serve in Congress."

Richie went on to explain, "That Alaska pulled this election off without a hitch - even when they had to implement RCV much faster than expected following the passing of Don Young - speaks to just how straightforward RCV is as well as the excellent work led by election officials and Alaskans for Better Elections. Polling by Patinkin Research Strategies shows that overwhelming majorities of Alaska voters received instructions on how to rank their choices, found RCV simple to use, and took advantage of their right to rank multiple candidates. Alaskans were also excited to engage, with turnout jumping compared to the last three primaries and hitting a near-record. Fully 99.8% of voters in the contest cast a valid ballot in their first RCV election."

Alaska gets to do it all over again in November, including a rematch for the seat that was just temporarily filled by special election. Perhaps, candidates and strategy managers have time to take lessons from recent results. I hope they encourage voters to fully express their preferences so that they can get to the best possible majority results for Alaskans. I have less hope that there will be an end to pundits and media that can take a pro-voter, non-partisan reform and attempt to make it a partisan wedge.

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Join FairVote Virginia and other coalition partners on the Ride for Ranked Choice Voting. Team RCV will cycle from Jamestown to Richmond and back in support of electoral reforms. Not an avid cyclist?

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