Win Gruening: Confusion over ranked-choice voting persists



Most Alaska voters have had an opportunity to consider the modifications to Alaska’s election system since Ballot Measure 2 was enacted in November 2020.  Articles regarding the changes have flooded the news.  The Division of Elections has crafted educational videos and mailings attempting to explain it all.

Yet, with less than eight weeks remaining before Alaska’s first ever ranked-choice election (the special election to fill  Rep. Don Young’s remaining term), uncertainty and misperceptions abound. 

Just in case you missed it, in a nutshell, there were two main changes:

  • Partisan primaries are replaced with open top-four primaries for state executive, state legislative, and congressional offices; and
  • in the general election, traditional ballots will be replaced with ranked-choice voting (RCV) where voters can rank the top four candidates that win in the primaries.

Based on what happened in the all-mail top-four primary that was just concluded, voter confusion over ballot procedures will continue. With 48 candidates on the special primary ballot, the top-four finishers were Sarah Palin, Nick Begich, Alan Gross, and Mary Peltola. In some voting districts, with voters having only one choice to make, as many as 17% of votes were invalidated. While the Division of Elections has not released details, the rejection rate may reflect the inherent pitfalls of mail-in voting.  

Nevertheless, it’s obvious that voters had difficulty following the instructions provided. One wonders how voters will fare in the upcoming RCV election that is far more confounding and complex. 

Then, if that wasn’t confusing enough, even before all the votes were counted, Alan Gross, the third-place finisher, pulled out of the race. It’s not clear if Tara Sweeney, who finished fifth, can replace Gross in the special general election.  

While the Division of Elections has ruled against adding Sweeney to the slate, who ultimately appears on the special general election ballot hinges on some rather odd wording in the original ballot measure. The language pertaining to candidate withdrawals for special primary elections excludes a reference to a U. S. House election.  It seems that this may trigger an appeal that will likely go to the Alaska Supreme Court and necessarily be decided on an expedited basis.

Claims that this new voting system reduces partisanship have yet to be proven. Rumors of skullduggery are rampant.  If nothing else, this whole fiasco points out what happens when laws are passed through un-vetted ballot measures.

Meanwhile, combing through social media postings, it’s apparent voters have been strategizing about how to rank various candidates on the ballot. Early on, one poster asked the question about the upcoming RCV special general election on August 16 : If there are multiple candidates from different parties on the ballot, how should I vote?”

Dozens of answers were widely divergent. Many suggested to only rank candidates with whom you are comfortable. Reportedly, Jason Grenn, who chaired the pro-RCV campaign committee, Alaskans for Better Elections, has told supporters “don’t rank anyone you don’t want to see elected.” So, presumably, voters listening to him may only rank one or two candidates and leave any others unranked.

Others opined just the opposite, saying voters should rank all the candidates. The theory is simple: even if you dislike several of the candidates, surely there are differences among them and based on those differences you should have preferences. 

This seems obvious but partisan strategists are sending mixed messages. 

In this election, it may take three elimination rounds to determine a winner that garners a majority of the votes. If you only vote for one or two candidates, you potentially  will have exhausted your vote and you may have no say in the final vote tally that determines the winner. 

That’s just the opposite of what RCV purports to accomplish.

It is, however, what Alaskans voted for when we passed Ballot Measure 2 by a bare 1% margin in a campaign where the ballot measure sponsor, financed by outside interests, outspent Alaskans 10:1. 

So, remember, your vote goes further by ranking all the candidates.  Whether you lean left or right politically, surely you can acknowledge there are differences between Nick Begich, Sarah Palin, and Mary Peltola (and perhaps Tara Sweeney, if an appeal is successful) – and can thus rank them appropriately.

That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular opinion page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations.


  1. I will never be convinced that RCV is good for us, fraud designed to confuse, mislead, and cheat the voters of Alaska,. Outside intrusts 10 to 1 ????

  2. Win’s suggestion to rank all 4 candidates is very much the intent of those who supported the initiative. It gives your second, or third, choice votes to the remaining candidates until one gets more than 50 percent.
    In the Special Election for Congress, you could give all the candidates on the ballot a ranked vote. The least popular candidate will be eliminated, and anyone voting for him/her will have their second choice votes counted. If there are only three candidates, the race is now over, and one of the remaining 2 will be declared the winner.
    If our Court rules there are to be four candidates, then it could go thru one more round before a winner is chosen.
    Palin, Begich, Peltola +/- Sweeney. If the final vote remained in the same order, then Sweeney would get knocked out first. One might assume voters who choose her as a first choice might give their second place votes to Begich, or if following Gross’ suggestion, to Peltola, or to Palin. It is possible that a third place candidate (e.g.: Peltola) could get enough votes grom the fourth place candidate’s voter’s second choices) to knock out Begich, but unlikely. If the primary is a (160,000 voter poll) indication of the general, it is more likely that Peltola will be the next candidate eliminated. Voters for Peltola may have Begich as their second place choice, and Sweeney voters may have Begich as their third place choice, in sufficient quantity to put Begich ahead of Palin. (I’m simplifying this, in reality only the computer will know.) It seems unlikely that voters for Peltola would rank Palin in second place, but they could.
    I can imagine that core issue voters, such as a Right to Life voter, would be ill advised to give a Pro-Abortion candidate their second, third, or fourth place vote. They would find themselves in the position of having their vote help a candidate win that they regret.
    The “bullet voter” selecting only one, or ranking solely along candidates who they can support, will not find themselves in such a quandary.
    Those voting for a “conservative” candidate, may find a full spectrum of more to less conservative positions among those who advance from the primary to the general. But there isn’t much benefit from ranking in third or fourth someone such a voter found to be not conservative at all.
    Ranking only those you can support does not lessen the value of your vote, but it does preclude your vote advancing a candidate you do not truly support. If there are others who support the candidate you oppose, then perhaps they will win, just not with your vote. It’s all we’re left with in this “second place winner” system.

  3. Rank choice voting has to be the brain child of someone who was on really heavy medication! One person one vote.

    • Jody, Rank Choice Voting does only give you one vote. If your 1st-rank candidate is eliminated your one and only vote for that candidate also gets eliminated. Then, your second rank candidate would get your one and only vote. This reallocation of your vote could only happen twice. However, you still only get one vote… its just that your one vote could get reassigned to your lower-ranked candidates as your higher-ranked ones drop off.
      What this system does more than anything is render the political parties less relevant because they no longer select their candidates via their own primaries.

      • As a follow-up, I challenge anyone to explain clearly how their 4th-rank vote would ever be utilized.

  4. Too bad the fools voted in something they didn’t understand. I wish for the days when people educated themselves on issues before voting.

  5. One man one vote. If the people don’t even understand the new very complicated rules and Soros/democrat purchased system; how can it be said we the people EVER agreed to it. WE did both AND it is an illegitimate globalist conversion, theft, if you will. It isn’t nice or ladylike to fool dear Alaskans.

  6. The only confusion is the misinformation junk journalism like this perpetrates as their fearful puppetmasters demand

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