There’s a case to be made against ranked choice voting. There are facts and true data that will convince a good number of Alaskans that RCV is a bad idea.
Instead, what I heard last month at the kickoff event for the ranked-choice repeal campaign was a lot of “truthiness.” That’s a Stephen Colbert term for things that feel true, at least to an intended audience. Truthiness, I'm sure, lights up the part of the brain associated with ideology and bedrock beliefs.
The event was at a South Anchorage church and it seemed like most of the attendees were already convinced that ranked choice will ruin America. They applauded and shouted their agreement to multiple assertions of truthiness that were just wrong, or intentionally misleading and alarming.
“Go back to that general primary,” Art Mathias, a sponsor of the initiative circulating now to repeal RCV, told them, apparently referring to the special primary for U.S. House in June. “The person in there that came in fifth or sixth or seventh place and got 4 or 5% of the vote – can they then win? They can.”
“How can someone who finishes sixth or seventh win under rank choice voting?” I asked Mathias.
“Just like they did this time, when they had two or three in front of them drop out,” he said. He mentioned candidates Al Gross and Tara Sweeney.
Mathias believed, contrary to fact, that Mary Peltola won her seat in Congress because Gross cleared a spot for her on the special general ballot by dropping out.
That is not what happened.
Let’s review: Peltola came in fourth place in the special primary, winning a spot on the special general ballot with 10% of the vote. That had nothing to do with Gross, who dropped out too late to put a replacement name on the ballot. The special general was a three-way race and Peltola came in first. Once the rankings were tallied she remained in first.
And Sweeney? She won a spot on the November ballot but dropped out in time for Chris Bye to advance instead of her. Peltola was the top finisher in that August primary, with 37% of the vote. She already had a spot on the November ballot, regardless of what Sweeney did.
Peltola was in first place on election night in November, and she remained on top after the rankings were tallied.
I recounted the facts of those elections to Mathias, but he remained skeptical. His truthiness – that it was rigged, that Peltola finished fifth in the primary, that she got no more than 5% of the primary vote – seemed real to him.
Mathias also talked a lot about 17,000 “exhausted ballots” from the last election. It seemed like he was conflating it with invalidated ballots.
Exhausted “means they throw it out. They don't count it,” Mathias told the crowd. “Why? Why do some people get their votes exhausted? Why doesn't everybody get a vote? One person one vote. Isn't that the American way?”
No, 17,000 ballots weren’t tossed without being counted.
If you’ll recall, a lot of Alaskans who don’t like ranked choice voting vowed last year to only mark their first choice.
Their ballots were counted. But if their favorite candidate came in last, their ballot – with no rankings for second or third choice – went no further. At that point it was deemed “exhausted.”
In the November U.S. House election, nearly 15,000 ballots were counted but became “exhausted” before the final round. Nearly 2,000 others were blank and just under 500 ballots had too many candidates selected for the same ranking. That’s where the 17,000 figure comes from.
Former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman also spoke about exhausted ballots at the kickoff event. He opposes ranked choice, but to his credit, Leman accurately explained to the crowd what an exhausted ballot is. I’m not sure it penetrated Mathias’s truthiness and the evocative image of thousands of ballots tossed into the trash uncounted.
One more thing: About the contention that RCV allows a fifth place candidate to win. It’s true that Libertarian Chris Bye finished fifth in the primary but got on the November ballot after Sweeney dropped out.
In theory, if he’d won the hearts and minds of Alaska, Bye could be a congressman today.
And if a dozen candidates had dropped out or been felled by noxious sauerkraut, someone even more obscure could be Alaska’s lone voice in the U.S. House right now. That’s a function of Alaska’s rule on how to fill ballot vacancies. It’s been in place for years – long before Alaskans adopted ranked choice voting and the nonpartisan primary.
Maybe I’m wasting my time with this fact-checking, but I want to believe that facts matter, and that people care about the difference between fact and belief. That’s my truthiness and I’m sticking to it.
That’s it for this edition of the newsletter. I’m going to help my colleagues cover the Iditarod start this weekend and then head back to my regular duty station at the U.S. Capitol. Alaska At-Large will be back in your inbox in two weeks.
Follow me on twitter: @lruskin