New PGP Research Suggests Recent Reforms will Expand Opportunity Set
for Alaskan Voters 

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Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was one of seven Republicans to vote for the conviction of former President Donald Trump on February 13. Many of the other votes might be explained electorally: two were from retiring senators; and three from senators who had just won reelection and won’t face voters again for six years. But Lisa Murkowski? President Donald Trump won Alaska by over 10 points in 2020. Murkowski is known as a politically independent thinker, but will her willingness to buck her party spell imminent electoral doom in 2022?

Perhaps not. Murkowski may have less trouble than expected in keeping her seat, thanks to a key electoral reform that Alaskans passed in November, Measure 2. Starting in 2022, Alaskans will vote in an open primary. Candidates from all parties, even those with no party, will appear on a single ballot. All voters will be able to participate. The top four vote-getters will proceed to the general election, where Alaskans will use ranked-choice voting to determine the winner. Together, these electoral reforms may create a profound shift in Alaskan politics. 

Under the usual rule in American elections, each citizen votes for only one candidate, and the plurality winner is elected. Political scientists have long observed that plurality voting, in the form of a first-past-the-post system, fosters just two parties, as most voters align with those parties with a chance of electoral success. And under today’s polarization, party primaries can often reward extreme candidates. Research suggests ranked-choice voting can change this dynamic, by providing a path for median voters to be the pivotal decisionmakers. In other words, ranked choice voting systems tend to favor candidates with more moderate positions. Other research suggests that ranked-choice voting results in less hostile campaigning.

Not everyone is happy with the Alaskan reform. A lawsuit has recently been filed, claiming that the new top-four/ranked-choice system will lead right back to the same major political parties dominating elections. However, an analysis done by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project suggests that the opposite is the case. Based on prior statewide elections, the new system should increase the number of choices available to Alaska voters - and give new life to minor parties. In the seven general elections held since 2016, advancing the top four vote-getters would have given Alaskans 28 choices in all. But in real life, only 21 candidates appeared on the ballot. Furthermore, the PGP analysis showed that in 11 out of 16 elections where a minor party candidate appeared on the November ballot, at least one such candidate had votes to potentially finish in the top four. And now that voters are relieved of the pressure to support a major-party candidate, minor parties should do even better in the future.

Senator Murkowski doesn’t fit the national mold of her party, and is known for her attention to Alaska-specific issues. In 2010, she escaped her party’s doctrinaire wing the hard way, losing the primary but winning a write-in campaign. Primary reforms give her a more straightforward path, since it is unlikely that any Republican challenger could prevent her from ending up in the top four with primary voters. And her independent streak may be just what Alaskans prize in the final round of voting. Friends of reform concerned about deep polarization in other states should consider whether a similar form can help other candidates follow Lisa Murkowski’s path of independence and appeal to local issues that transcend national partisan warfare.

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