Win Gruening: Ranked-choice voting is not that simple



If the election debacle that played out in the New York City’s mayoral race is any indication, Alaska voters may get surprised next year when our first election under a ranked-choice voting system (RCV) is held.  Previously used just in a few school board and municipal races across the country, Alaska became only the second state (after Maine) to approve RCV elections after passage of Ballot Measure 2 last November.  

Touted by its Alaska proponents as “simple as 1-2-3-4” and often referred to as “instant-runoff voting”, the first use of RCV in NYC’s party primaries has been anything but that.  The Democratic mayoral primary held on June 22 had 13 candidates on the ballot and voters were asked to rank their top 5 choices.  A week later, after the initial wave of computer-generated elimination rounds, chaos reigned after the discovery of 135,000 test ballots that were mistakenly included in the vote count.  

Finally, after adding 120,000 absentee ballots the next week and re-running ballot elimination rounds, Eric Adams was declared the winner with 50.5% of the vote – 2 weeks after the election. The results still must be certified. 

Alaska’s new voting system, which is even more complicated than NYC’s, will take effect in our 2022 election cycle.  There are two major changes to Alaska’s elections:

  • 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 where voters can rank the top four candidates that win in the primaries.

Under Alaska’s new primary system, all candidates for a given office run in a single primary election. The top four vote-getters, regardless of political party, then advance to the general election. 

In the general election, voters rank those four candidates – 1 through 4. If no candidate wins a simple majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. That candidate’s 2nd choice votes are then redistributed to the other candidates. The tabulation process continues in rounds eliminating the lowest vote-getters until one candidate receives over 50% of the vote.

In reviewing Alaska election results over the past three elections cycles, it isn’t clear that RCV would have necessarily altered the outcomes of any of the statewide races. But RCV will generate an enormous amount of voter confusion.

Instead of filling in just 3 or 4 ovals as they would on a traditional general election ballot, voters could now be asked to fill in 25 or more ovals, creating countless opportunities for mistakes. If a voter ranks more than one candidate as their first choice, it will be treated as an “over-vote” and be invalidated. Voters will likely inadvertently leave ovals blank thereby depriving themselves of a vote on subsequent elimination rounds.  

The initial unofficial results, hopefully available soon after polls close, will be updated periodically as absentees arrive up until the 15th day following the election. It isn’t until after all absentees are counted that election computers will then begin the elimination process, if necessary, to re-allocate 2nd choice votes, 3rd choice votes and so on.

The ultimate outcome of some races, therefore, could remain in doubt for weeks and results could change dramatically. If vote results are contested, the procedure for recounting will be largely opaque, controlled by vote-counting software that automatically re-adjusts vote totals.  

This is the radical change that voters approved, albeit by only a thin 1% margin. 

But voters can educate themselves on the races so they’re ready to vote for their candidates before entering the voting booth. With our new open primary, candidate party labels may or may not be accurate so one cannot rely on them. It’s also important to note that, in a heavily contested multi-candidate race, only voting for one candidate, or ”bullet voting”, makes it more likely that the candidate you least prefer may win.

Hats off to the Alaska Division of Elections that already has begun educational efforts.

Regrettably, the traditional principle of one-person one-vote that has served our country well for hundreds of years has been replaced by a confusing and unproven system.  

The change isn’t simple, and Alaskans need to prepare for it.

After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening began writing op-eds for local and statewide media. 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 and currently serves on the board of the Alaska Policy Forum.


  1. Rank Choice Voting is NOT that complex. If we stop the fear mongering, it will fall into place nicely. It is obvious Mr. Gruening either chooses to or does not understand Rank Choice Voting

    • There is no benefit. Ranking one in all four is the same as ranking only the first bubble. Second, third etc choice only comes into play if your preferred candidate loses

    • If you only vote for a single candidate who is in third place in the counting, you have NO input on the final count between the top two.

      Your only vote for an eliminated candidate is effectively divided between the candidate you like least and someone you believe is far superior.

      Always vote for your second choice.

      • No, do not “always vote your second choice.” Only do so if you truly want your second choice to win. If you withhold your second choice, although you will not be helping your first choice, at least you will not be helping a candidate you don’t truly want to win.
        Everyone needs to realize, the leftists promoted this voting system because it lures people into voting for candidates they would never otherwise vote for. The leftist/socialist/Marxists know very well this is the only method they could find to get their undesirable candidates elected.

  2. Would it be possible for someone to come up with a sample ballot or ballots so we have an idea of what we will be facing? I have read several descriptions of the procedures and the more I read the more confused I become.

  3. Where is the court challenge? This ballot measure violated the law: one subject per measure, not this 25 page poorly written mess. AND if not challenged another measure needs to rescind it. One person, one legal vote. And why is there two weeks for the less than ethical to fabricate ahem, find, enough votes?

  4. Can’t we vote to dump ranked vote system this year and save all the trouble of juggling the 2022 election results and habing no way to audit the results.

  5. So if we like a candidate and want to vote for them as our 1st thru 15th choice, will that be possible which might preserve our vote through the various algorithms? In other words, can I vote for the same candidate for my 1st, 2nd, 3rd choice etc etc?

    • You can do it, but you shouldn’t. If your candidate is eliminated in any of the rounds, NONE of your other votes for that candidate will count in subsequent rounds.

      Ranked choice is a deletion process rather than an addition process. When you vote for a candidate, the votes each candidate gets are divided by the total of all votes cast (100%). If that number is >50%, that candidate wins. If it goes to Round 2, the worst performing candidate is dropped. Say that candidate got 15% of the total. When their votes are dropped, the votes are added together (first and second choice votes for each candidate) and those totals are divided by the remaining votes, in this case 85% of the original total.

      The other little thing that falls out of all this is that failure to vote for the other choices (2-4 on the Nov ballot) end up being 1/2 votes for those who you don’t like if it goes a second round. So vote for all 4 all the time. Cheers –

  6. I participated in a Division of Elections test voting exercise in which we were to select our favorite Alaska seafood to include shellfish, ground fish, lobster and crab. I was amazed that the resulting winner was polluck. I find it hard to believe that Alaskans believe that pollack think that is best seafood in Alaska out of all the choices provided. I watched to participate in the final four vote but could never find the right website.

  7. Right, art. It’s so simple, just like the recent election in New York! And even if it is simple, it is not TRANSPARENT!

  8. Ranked choice voting would be better named: “second choice voting” because everyone’s second, 3rd, 4th choice votes outnumber the first choice votes.
    The math: every voter will make up to 4 choices, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. So 10 voters generate 40 votes. 10 of which are first choice and 30 are 2nd, 3rd, and 4th choice. The proponents are well aware of how complex this system really is.
    Libertarians, Greens, independents are effectively disenfranchised. Their first choice candidates serving only as a place holder for second choice candidates. It’s complexity creates a very subtle form of discrimination, one I compare to handing a voter a newspaper to test their literacy, minorities being given a Japanese language paper, thank you Jim Crow Democrats.
    It is not an automatic win for Sen Lisa Murkowski. It likely requires candidates to soften their message so as to appeal to a wider range of voters. Or to put it another way, for each if us to seek to convince those not in our party to select our candidate as their 2nd or 3rd choice.
    This is a system that favors second place “winners.”
    Because we need less clarity in our elected representatives, ensuring we “kick the can” further down the road on critical decisions facing Alaska.

    • You said it Bruce Campbell, exactly. Many good points. Many ballots will be thrown out due to literacy complications. The whole nation watched the fascinating election results in FL during the Bush /Gore debacle. The problem THEN was chads. The whole U.S. learned what a CHAD is, the hard way.

      The world will be watching the 22 election in Alaska. We’re quite vulnerable up here…only 700,000 + citizens, 2/3 possibly, voting. We’re already a curiosity. This is gonna be good.

      Lowest in U.S. education rating. Bring it on!

      Either let’s screw it up like we should, or surprise the heck out of everyone and succeed.

  9. “Losers’ votes” in RCV are distributed to remaining candidates…but does a computer determine the percentage of those votes that are given to each remaining candidate?

    Does Alaska use Dominion computers in elections? Are Dominion computers known to be fair?

    This is going to be a high learning curve everybody.

    Good luck. What if every single voter made mistakes on the ballot? If not a single ballot was executed properly and NO candidate got votes because the voters’ ballots were thrown out, might the State initiate a referendum on the procedure of RCV versus regular election procedures?

    • No, Zane. I’m sure that the ‘objective’ computer will only find ‘errors’ on the unfavored class of voters. And of course it is all beyond audit verification.

  10. Write in votes will be needed for 1choice 2nd choice 3choice 4 choice.
    Historically, in Alaska write-in matters.

  11. “…political scientist Martin Gilens has figured out why legislators aren’t listening to you: It’s because you’re not rich … “In most circumstances, affluent Americans exert substantial influence over the policies adopted by the federal government, and less well off Americans exert virtually none.”
    Well, DUH! Like we didn’t already know that.

    Google “pitfalls of ranked choice voting” There’s a whole lot more to it than what meets the eye.
    Also “Maine’s experience with ranked choice voting”

  12. Except for Bruce Campbell, it’s clear that none of you really get the implications of ranked choice voting. It IS going to favor moderates that can appeal to a broader base. MRAK, Trump, and the Republican Party endorsing Kelly Tshibaka is NOT a good thing! In fact, you BOZOS going ‘all in’ on Kelly has ensured a win for somebody else! You want to win? Find a stealth candidate who is closet Conservative or at least doesn’t have an overt history of supporting Trump! Kelly’s connection to Trump will cause the Democrats and a lot of Independents and even Republicans to rank her last! There is NO counter move. I AM Conservative, but I have to say, you Republicans are not the Party of smart! You are so easily manipulated…you hate moderate Murkowski so you rush to the very first person to throw their hat in the ring. You’ve committed to a FAR right candidate before you understood the ramifications of ranked choice voting! Oh, and she’s not really an Alaskan!

    • “……….You are so easily manipulated……..”
      And we’re getting damned sick and tired of the manipulation…………which is why Trump got elected in 2016. That painfully obvious fact that whizzes right by the point on top of your head illustrates that this society is in for a lot more pain before the cataclysmic “reset” is finally achieved, and I bet it won’t be the “reset” those currently in power are drooling for.

      • I am all for any “reset” that removes the entrenched elite from power. You are correct that Trump was not one of them and they attacked him because of it. However, Trump has already proven that he was not the savior you were hoping for! You also seem unaware of how many Conservatives have had enough of Trump and his lies…Conservatives that are needed to win any future election. You claim to be tired of the manipulation yet you seem to be letting Trump and MRAK manipulate you into supporting a loser candidate who is unqualified and not even a real Alaskan. If by “pointy head” you mean I’m intelligent and well educated, YOU’RE RIGHT…which means I know what I’m ‘talking’ about! If you were wise, you’d listen!

    • Way too Machiavellian for us regular folks. That kind of thinking is what creates these kind of situations. KISS!

      • It remains to be seen whether open primary/ranked choice will be good or bad for the State. It IS the law! The word that actually applies, in regards Kelly T, is “Pavlovian”! ‘They’ blow the whistle and YOU believe whatever you’ve been conditioned to believe. There is a difference between “regular folk” and ‘simple minded’. I would attempt to educate you more on this subject, but the last time I tried, Suzanne CENSORED me! I think she feels sorry for you…you being simple minded and such! KISS, KISS!

        • AntonioJ: It’s not what you’re saying. It’s how you’re saying it. You can’t antagonize people and then expect them to hear you out.
          “There is NO counter move.” is describing RCV as TicTacToe”, wherein if you know the blocking move, you can always prevent your opponent from winning. There isn’t any counter move to it.
          RCV requires computers to tally the result, and also to audit, since the algorithms used to tally, and/or audit are too complex to accomplish by hand, in a timely manner.
          Therein is the vulnerability of RCV … we must have complete faith in computer algorithms, and the computers which are, by necessity, open to any competent nation-state hacker.
          If they get hacked, we might not even have a way to know it in time to salvage an election.
          The counter move is to have independent computer audits simultaneously, as the votes are tallied … and open source software on all computers involved, so any attempts to hack into the system won’t be hidden within proprietary software.
          You have some knowledge of RCV, but not quite enough to warrant brow-beating anyone with it.

        • In case you don’t understand Americanisms … I wasn’t blowing you a KISS. It means “Keep It Simple, Stupid”.

      • The “no counter move” refers specifically to Kelly being in the general election if there are more than two candidates. The anti-Trumpers WILL put her last in RCV. This means the Dems, most of the Independents, and some Conservatives. She will NOT get >50% and if it goes to RCV she will NOT win. Simple math proves there is NO counter move! Which brings us to “how” I said it. In the last election I had a choice between ‘evil’ and ‘utterly stupid’! That upsets me! Now I see Conservatives once again being UTTERLY STUPID! Listen, I’m to the far right on the “bell curve”, which doesn’t make me just a little more intelligent but MANY times so. Therefore dealing with most of you is like dealing with children…as I indicated in my comment. So yeah, “how” I said it was patronizing BECAUSE it is the truth. You are all little children to me! You err in giving my words the same weight as anyone else!!! A smart person would have replied; ‘This guy’s right. In our hatred for Murkowski we rushed our decision” (17 MONTHS before the election!) You also err in assuming I want to convince people to my point of view. No, I DO have a moral obligation to point out that you guys are screwing up, and I do regularly. However, personally, I’d prefer not to have to spend eternity with you (not you personally Joseph, I enjoy sarcasm!).

  13. Neither the Jungle Primary, nor the ranked choice voting is simple. It is, however the law. Thanks largely to simple voters?
    Even more complex is the process for changing the new law. The rules prohibit the Legislature making changes for 2 years. The 25 pages of new law is beyond any simple change.
    I have lots of experience in drafting legislation, IMO this has to be crafted by the Legislative Legal experts.
    Can an initiative be repealed by referendum? Even if it could be, it is so complicated a mess that it won’t be. You just can’t get the public to reject something they won’t understand until too late.
    Al Vezey’s Opinion column in the Newsminer explains the long, long history of chaos ranked choice has presented in many jurisdictions across the US, all but a few of whom rejected it ASAP.

  14. If I can’t manually reproduce the election results spit out by the vote counting software in a reasonable time frame, I absolutely don’t trust it. As a professional software engineer, I believe no good will come of this. Honestly, any software involved in elections needs to be open-source and the code published for all to see. That this isn’t the law everywhere in this country is obscene.

    I will not be surprised if this state “magically” flips blue over the next couple of election cycles.

  15. Wow. This whale sized “Donneybrook” should build confidence, attract and incentivize future business opportunities! If Alaskans are stupid enough to let this errant law stand as-is, then surely they are too stupid to attract sophisticated crowd of potential investors.
    Surrounding yourself amongst idiots begets one to being an idiot too.

    • Petroleum oils slowly replaced whale oils for light and heat. Not a real big money maker.
      Then some British business people discovered commercial quantities of oil in the Middle-East and East Indies. By the “law of first price”, they secured vast quantities of oil, for decades, for a lot less (per BTU) than coal or whale oil.
      They then persuaded (bribed) the British Navy to convert from coal to oil. Once the navy started converting to oil, commercial shippers seen opportunity to be even more competitive, and negotiated an even lower price point.
      Through all of this the business persons who started it all, were dependent on ignorance and/or apathy, at all levels.
      Things like “No-Pebble” and “Stand For Salmon” persuaded some One-percenters that Alaska is ripe for the plucking. They financed and lobbied for the AK Gas Line, RCV, CRT, and several other things designed to soften up Alaska even more.
      Their eyes are on the Permanent Fund. 80 billion is a huge prize, worth the effort.
      People can make foolish choices out of ignorance, social conditioning, political correctness, loyalty to political party, and just plain apathy, amongst other things.
      “Stupid” encompasses only a small portion of humankind.

  16. You did this to yourself, Alaska.

    Better yet, Mike Porcaro helped talk you into it.

    You played a stupid game, this is your prize

  17. The leftists forgot one basic fact when contriving the ranked choice system. That is conservatives and patriots are fully capable of fielding two candidates in every election…. thereby giving their base a conservative for both rank-1 and rank-2 on their ballots.

    • Great idea … and I would also like to see Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump both vying for the GOP nomination … with both of them agreeing to taking the loser as his running mate. Now that could be a real unity ticket.

  18. With the understanding that before one gets to rank two conservatives 1st and 2nd choice on your ranked choice general election ballot, the two candidates have to survive the jungle primary where you get one vote. The jungle primary will filter out many such efforts because those with only one choice will likely attract their core supporters.
    According to the Div of Elections website one can file in the general as a write-in. Everyone else has to be in the primary, and only the top 4 advance to the general.
    With no party label, no affiliation, no means of declaring one is conservative except advertising, along with the faux conservatives.

  19. I believe every word that Win Gruening is warning. This is a pretty dire situation. I suspect the 1% who outvoted the majority on Ballot Measure 2 had been surviving the easy way through life, ( which is not possible) and those people hoping for an easier way to vote gave one second thought to Ranked Choice Voting , thinking RCV was THE EASIER WAY. But thanks to people looking for an easier way might learn the ultimate life lesson…..nothing about living is easy.


  20. If RCV is so great why was it hidden in all the advertisement for Prop 2. I seem to remember Prop 2 begin touted as a end for Dark Money in elections with little if any mention of the part about RCV. Ironic that those same ads were bought with dark money by out of state interests primarily concerned with passing RCV. Repeal this travesty and roll back mail in voting before it’s to late.

  21. Wayne is correct. Vote for your first choice. Leave the remaining blank or vote only for a second or third choice you really want to win. Do not rank a candidate you don’t want to win. Your 4th rank vote is one more vote, and counts the same as another voters 1st rank vote for the same candidate once the computer eliminates other candidates.
    Read the Div of Elections rules and explanations so you are an informed voter. Be prepared to explain the rules. The critical decisions Alaska faces require diligence. We’re in this together.

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