While Democrat Mary Peltola widened her lead over Republican Sarah Palin in results late Tuesday night in the U.S. House race to finish Rep. Don Young’s term, it's the former Alaska governor who's poised to be the state's next member in the House of Representatives.

With 67% of precincts reporting at 4 a.m. Wednesday, Peltola, a former state lawmaker, led by 8,588 votes over Palin — 56,892 to 48,304 — in the special general election. That's a difference of 37.8 percent to 32.1 percent.  

However, the race is being decided by ranked choice voting. That means if no candidate receives 50% plus one vote in the first tabulation of results, the third-place candidate in the race will be eliminated and his voters' No. 2 choice will be counted in the second round of tabulations. 

That shifts the focus from who the winner is to who the loser is, and in that case, it appears to be Nick Begich III. The Republican grandson of Alaska's U.S representative from 1971-72 was in third place with 43,038 votes.

"Given none of the three will get over 50%, what matters is who comes in third," University of Alaska Fairbanks professor of political science Dr. Brandon Boylan explained. "That person will be eliminated, and the votes for the person after that person will 'roll up' accordingly." 

As a Republican, it is likely that the majority of his voters listed Palin as their No. 2 choice. For example, should she receive two out of three of Begich's No. 2 choice votes, that would put her ahead of Peltola and over the 50% mark needed to win the race.

"Most people who ranked Begich as first likely put Palin as second," Boylan said. "If Begich comes in third and thus eliminated, the second votes roll up, most likely the majority of which to Palin. That will likely be enough to put Palin over 50% and win. Accordingly, if Palin is third, Begich will likely win." 

The winner of the special U.S. House election will complete the final months of Young’s term. The Congressman died unexpectedly in March after serving in office for 49 years. The two-year term ends in January.

Peltola is seeking to be the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress. 

"I expect Peltola to do well but not get over 50%, and she’ll likely not be the majority of people’s second vote on either Palin or Begich," Boylon said. "So I think this comes down to Palin or Begich. Not sure how it will turn out, but I’m giving Palin a slight edge." 

The three candidates in the special election also are the top finishers in results Tuesday night for Alaska’s open primary for the next full U.S. House term.

With 69.2% of those ballots counted, results showed Peltola collecting 53,342 votes, representing 35% of ballots cast, to Palin’s 47,763 votes, at 31.4%. Begich was third with 40,972 votes, at 27%. 

A third Republican — Tara Sweeney — was the closest competitor to the top three, collecting 5,427 votes, for 3.6%. That would have the former assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs under Donald Trump in the mix for the November general election. 

That race will also be decided by ranked-choice voting.