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What Sarah Palin and the GOP don’t understand about her defeat

As Sarah Palin and Republicans complain about her special election loss, they're overlooking the fact that Alaska's system worked exactly as intended.


A week later, the results of Alaska’s congressional special election continue to reverberate — though for many Republicans, not in a good way. Sen. Tom Cotton, for example, condemned Alaska’s electoral process as a “scam.” Rep. Tom Emmer, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, added this week that he believes the state’s system is “unconstitutional” and at odds with how a constitutional republic should function.

Former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin, hoping to use this special election as a comeback bid 13 years after an abrupt resignation, came up short last week and started peddling weird theories this week. The Republican called Alaska’s elections process a “cockamamie system” that’s a “very, very potentially fraught with fraud system.”

At issue is something called ranked-choice balloting, or instant-runoff balloting, which is less complicated than it probably sounds. NBC News recently explained that the process allows voters to rank the candidates in order of preference.

If one candidate wins a majority in the first round, he or she wins. But if no one gets a majority, the last-place candidate is eliminated and their supporters’ second-choice votes are allocated accordingly. If that still doesn’t produce a winner with a majority, then the next lowest vote-getter is eliminated, and so on.

As we discussed last week, Rep.-elect Mary Peltola prevailed for a simple reason: A significant chunk of the voters who backed a different Republican candidate — Nick Begich III — preferred the Democrat to Palin.

It wasn’t a “scam.” Alaskans chose this model as a worthwhile political reform, and every candidate and party agreed to play by the same rules. There’s also no reason to see this as “unconstitutional” since federal court rulings have upheld the legitimacy of this voting system.

But there’s a related point that much of the GOP has chosen to overlook, and it’s worth emphasizing: Republicans obviously aren’t pleased with the outcome, but the process worked exactly as intended. The editorial board of The Washington Post had a good piece on this earlier this week:

[R]anked-choice voting isn’t a partisan tool; it’s a valuable way to ensure that the outcome accurately reflects voters’ preferences. ... The big winner of ranked-choice is lowercase-d democracy, for this simple reason: The system elevates candidates who are more broadly acceptable. Letting voters rank their preferences in open primaries will tend to elevate pragmatists over ideologues. It makes it harder for candidates with a fervent but narrow base of support and gives voice to the disaffected middle.

The whole point of adopting this reform was to help candidates with broader appeal while punishing candidates with narrow appeal.

Palin’s loss wasn’t an accident, and Peltola’s victory wasn’t a fluke. The system was designed to work this way.

If the former governor and her allies are looking for an explanation as to what happened, they need only to realize that Palin’s appeal was limited to a far-right base — and no one else.

That’s evidence of a flawed candidate, not a flawed system.