By Megan Caska
Vice President, Political

Updated March 26, 2024

The recent first-of-its-kind special primary election to fill Alaska’s at-large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives was a success for democracy. But according to the mainstream media, it was “wild”, “unusual”, and “2022′s most chaotic exercise in procedural democracy.” Plenty of articles poked fun at the state’s new system, noting the high number of candidates, that one of those candidates is named Santa Claus, and that voters could hypothetically be confused by it. All of this, apparently, meant this election was wild.

If you really think about it, what really would have been wild is if the late Representative Don Young’s replacement went to Congress with less than 30 percent of the vote – which could have happened in the old partisan primary system. 

While there are always ways we can improve elections, Alaska’s new system was a historic step forward – and might have been the most democratic election ever.

Alaska’s election system, explained

Alaska voters passed a 2020 ballot measure to ditch its semi-closed partisan primary system. In its place, voters established a nonpartisan top four primary and Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) general election. As we’ve written about before, this system gives Alaskans real choices at the ballot box.

In a top four nonpartisan primary, every candidate regardless of party appears on the same ballot, and every registered voter is able to participate. In Alaska, a whopping 58 percent of voters aren’t affiliated with a party. Where a closed primary would have prevented those folks from voting, the open primary allows them to participate in democracy. Voters cast a ballot for one candidate, and the top four – again regardless of party – then move on to the general election.

In Alaska’s general election, the winner will be decided using Ranked Choice Voting. Voters rank as many of the four candidates as they wish in order of preference. If one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, they win. But if nobody gets a majority, the candidate with the lowest number of first-choice votes is eliminated. The voters who chose that candidate as their first choice will then have their second-choice votes counted instead. This process continues until there is a majority winner. 

The special election – held because of longtime Representative Don Young’s unexpected death in March – is the first statewide election in the country to use this method. The results are reflective of Alaska’s diverse political leanings: the top four candidates include two Republicans, one Independent, and one Democrat (Al Gross, the Independent, suspended his campaign after the primary). 

Was this the most democratic election ever?

This was a historic special election on a number of levels. Due to labor shortages and the short timeline provided in statute for a special election, the Alaska Division of Elections conducted this election primarily by mail. That meant every Alaskan voter received a ballot – no request required. By making voting as accessible as possible, this move contributed to high voter turnout.

Now let’s take a look at the results. In a state with a closed or semi-closed primary, a special election would trigger partisan primaries where voters could only vote in the primary for the party they are registered with. By holding an open, nonpartisan primary, all candidates ran on the same ballot and all voters got to participate - for the first time ever. The field of candidates was diverse and more representative of Alaska, while the new system brought more transparency and choice.

As is typical with multi-candidate races, no candidate in Alaska won an outright majority. Former Gov. Sarah Palin received the most votes, leading the field with under 30 percent. Had this election been a closed partisan primary, it’s not difficult to imagine a world where she would  have won the nomination and been the overwhelming favorite in the general election. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think winning less than a third of the vote should send anyone to Congress. But open, nonpartisan primaries and a ranked-choice general election helps to ensure Alaska isn’t sending someone to Congress with a plurality of the vote. 

Alaska’s nonpartisan primary and RCV general election avoids a common issue in our democracy known as the primary problem, where most congressional elections are decided by a small number of primary voters. 

According to a 2021 report by Unite America, in the 2020 congressional elections just 10% of eligible voters cast ballots in primary elections that effectively decided the winners in a supermajority (83%) of seats. Due to factors including partisan gerrymandering, these 83% of congressional seats are so heavily Republican or Democratic that the only competitive election is the primary. RCV and the top-four primary system get rid of this winner-take-all system to ensure the elected representative is the most broadly acceptable choice. 

Alaska’s special election proved two points about the state’s election system: it increased the number of competitive candidates and the number of voters who turned out. Dozens of candidates ran who represented a broad spectrum of party ideologies, and that came from every corner of the state. And the special election primary saw higher voter turnout than the regularly scheduled primaries in the last three elections. When more people run and more people vote, we get closer and closer to the strong democracy we all are fighting for!

Alaska just held the most democratic election ever, and we here at RepresentUs are working to bring these reforms to every state in the union. Sign up below to join us in this movement! 

Contributors: Nolan Bush, RepresentUs Writer; Anh-Linh Kearney, RepresentUs Research Analyst

RepresentUs is America’s leading anti-corruption organization working city-by-city, state-by-state to fix our broken political system.