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Mary Peltola Defeats Palin, Becomes First Alaska Native to Win House Seat

The election was the first congressional race to use Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system.

Mary Peltola, photographed at the Resource Industry Trade Organizations Host Congressional Candidate Forum in Anchorage, Alaska, on May 12, 2022.

Mary Peltola, a former Alaska state representative, defeated Sarah Palin, a former governor of that state and former vice presidential candidate, for an open House seat in a special runoff election.

Peltola becomes the first woman ever to win Alaska’s sole seat in the House of Representatives. She’s also the first Alaska Native (Yup’ik) to be elected to the United States Congress from that state, and the first Democrat to win the House seat since Alaska became a state.

Her win is remarkable for political reasons, too. Peltola outdid the Republican Palin by around 3 percentage points, in a state that former President Donald Trump won by 10 points in the 2020 presidential election. Trump had endorsed Palin for the open seat, which was vacant due to the death of Congressman Don Young.

Peltola will serve out the remainder of Young’s term through January of next year. She will then appear on the ballot in the November midterms for reelection to the seat where she will once again face Palin and another Republican, Nick Begich, who was also a candidate in this special election.

The race was notable for being the first congressional race in the state to use Alaska’s newly implemented ranked choice voting system. Voters approved the system in a referendum vote during the 2020 elections.

Per the system’s rules, all candidates, regardless of party, run in the primary race, with the top four candidates advancing to the general election round. At that point, voters again rank their choices. If a majority isn’t attained by any candidate in the first round, the second-choice picks with the least amount of votes are added to the counts of the other candidates and the process is repeated until one candidate attains a majority.

Peltola received 39.7 percent of the vote in the first round, with Palin receiving 30.9 percent and Begich 27.8 percent. In the final round, with Begich removed and his voters’ second picks considered, Peltola reached the majority threshold, receiving 51.5 percent of the vote to Palin’s 48.5 percent.

“Thank you to all Alaskans who have put their faith in me as the first woman in Alaska’s history to represent our state in the House of Representatives,” Peltola said in a post-election tweet on Wednesday night. “Tonight, we’ve shown that we can win as a campaign that is pro-choice, pro-fish, pro-worker, and pro-Alaska.”

Many on the right were quick to blame the ranked choice voting mechanism as the reason why Palin lost. (Palin herself described the system as too confusing for voters.) On Trump’s social media site Truth Social, a plethora of users suggested, without any evidence for their claims, that the election was fraudulent. Mainstream Republicans also outlandishly hinted that something nefarious had occurred and that Democrats had somehow gamed the system that Alaskans had voted to make the law two years ago.

“60% of Alaska voters voted for a Republican, but thanks to a convoluted process and ballot exhaustion — which disenfranchises voters — a Democrat ‘won,'” wrote Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas).

Without going into too many details, Cotton also described ranked choice voting as a “scam to rig elections.”

There are problems with his assessments, however. Had the old system of voting still been in place, Peltola would have still won against Palin and Begich, and likely would have won even if she was running against Palin alone. The outcome of the vote didn’t mean Republicans were “disenfranchised” either — it merely meant that a significant portion of Begich’s supporters preferred to cross over to support the Democratic candidate rather than choose the Republican Palin as their second choice.

Many Twitter users were quick to respond to Cotton’s baseless claim, pointing out that the Electoral College — a system the senator still supports for choosing the president — is actually one that disenfranchises voters.

“Actually, Tom Cotton, the Electoral College is the scam that rigs elections,” author Keith Boykin responded. “Democrats have won the popular vote in 7 of the last 8 presidential elections, but because of the electoral college, Republicans got to be president twice in 20 years against the will of the people.”

Rob Richie, CEO of FairVote, an organization that promotes ranked choice voting across the country, celebrated the use of ranked choice voting in Alaska’s congressional election, adding that, in general, most voters by and large find the process to be an easy one.

“Ranked choice voting gave Alaskans more choice and competition in this contest,” Richie said in a statement. “Turnout was the third-highest in Alaska primary history and voters handled the ballot well, with 85 percent of voters reporting that ranking candidates was simple.”

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