On Wednesday, more than two weeks after Alaskans went to the polls, results finally came in the race for Alaska's sole congressional seat: In an upset, former state Rep. Mary Peltola has defeated two opponents with better funding and name recognition to become the next member of Congress from the state. She will be the first Democrat elected to that seat in nearly 50 years, and only the third Democrat since Alaska became a state. She is also the first Native Alaskan to represent the state in Congress.
Rep. Don Young (R–Alaska) was first elected in 1972, and held the seat continuously until his death in March. In a special election to serve out the rest of Young's term, Peltola faced two Republicans: former Gov. Sarah Palin and Nick Begich, grandson of Young's predecessor.
This was the first election cycle since Alaska switched to a new voting system using ranked choice voting on the general election ballot. Instead of selecting a single candidate, voters rank candidates by preference; if no candidate wins an outright majority, then the lowest performer is eliminated, and that candidate's votes are tallied again with their second choice counted first.
Peltola won the first round of voting, but Palin's and Begich's combined vote shares totaled nearly 60 percent. One might assume that once Begich, the lower performer, was eliminated, his votes would simply be re-allocated to Palin, who would win.
Instead, only half of Begich's voters picked Palin as their second choice: Nearly three out of ten chose Peltola second, and another 21 percent did not choose any other candidate. After all second choices were counted, Peltola prevailed over Palin, 52-49.
Palin is unpopular in the state, and criticized ranked choice voting during her campaign. After the results were announced, Palin blamed the new voting system and said that Begich should have simply bowed out.
Given Palin's unpopularity, it's entirely possible that she would have lost in a head-to-head match-up against Peltola anyway. But with ranked choice voting, voters are freed up to vote their conscience, rather than whoever they think is most electable, without having to worry about voting for a "spoiler" candidate.
Notably, ranked choice was not the reason it took so long to tally the votes. The sparsely-populated state accepts mail-in ballots up to 10 days after election day, as long as they are postmarked in time.
In a statement after the results were announced, FairVote, a nonprofit which supports ranked choice voting, highlighted a poll showing that 62 percent of Alaskan voters approved of the new system, while 85 percent found it easy to figure out.
Peltola will serve out the rest of Young's term, which will end in January. She is also running on November's ballot to serve in the seat in the next term.