Voters got to try the state’s new ranked choice voting system this month by voting for their favorite food at the Tanana Valley Fair. More than 900 ballots were cast.
“We had more participation at this straw poll than any in the recent past,” said Sue Sherif of the League of Women Voters. “People were curious how ranked choice voting would work.”
There were four “candidates” to choose from on the ballot at the League of Women Voters booth: Cotton Candy from the Sweet Party, Ice Cream Treats from the Moo Party, Turkey Leg from the Paleo Party and Elephant Ears, also from the Sweet Party.
Here’s how ranked choice voting works. Voters rank the candidates on the ballot, in order of preference: first, second, third and fourth. If one candidate receives a majority (more than 50%) of the first-choice votes, they win. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and those votes count instantly toward the next choice on each voter’s ballot. This process repeats until one candidate has a majority.
“The important thing is, every vote you cast, every choice you make, counts,” Sherif said.
Enter the fair food candidates: Cotton Candy, Ice Cream Treats, Turkey Leg and Elephant Ears.
Perhaps it was the warm weather during the early days of the fair this year. Perhaps Alaskans just like ice cream. Whatever the reason, adult voters chose Ice Cream Treats, a candidate of the Moo Party, as their favorite fun fair food. Elephant Ears of the Sweet Party was a close second.
In the first round, Ice Cream Treats did not win a true majority (50% plus one vote), so second choice votes of the small group of adult cotton candy fans, were redistributed. Still no clear winner.
In the third round, third-place Turkey Leg voters’ second choices were redistributed to the top two candidates. After that, Ice Cream garnered a clear majority of the total votes cast and won the election.
Kids participated in the new voting system as well.
Kids also chose Ice Cream Treats as the winner, but in a much more tightly run race. In the initial round, Cotton Candy was the the first choice, but it did not receive a true majority. Cotton Candy remained in first place during the second round, when fourth-choice Turkey Leg was eliminated.
But when Elephant Ears was eliminated in the third round, Ice Cream pulled ahead to gain the majority and win the election.
Sherif was personally shocked that Elephant Ears did not win. Devotees stand in the longest lines, for the longest time, for Elephant Ears, she said, and added, “But I was not right.”
Some folks who visited the booth expressed concern that this new voting system will only make already questionable elections worse.
“I don’t know any type of election that would calm their worries,” Sherif said. “I think when people actually fill out the ballot, they can see that it gives them a chance to express more than thumbs up and thumbs down.
“The big thing, if you think about it, is you have the opportunity to influence the election, even if your top choice doesn’t win,” she said.
According to the League of Woman Voters, most fairgoers completed their ballots with no problems. Less than 10% chose to rank fewer than four choices and just a few people chose to vote for just one candidate, which is an option in this new voting method.
The new voting system goes into effect at Alaska’s November 2022 election for all state and federal offices, except for judicial retention and ballot measures.
Proponents of this system say ranked-choice voting gives Alaskans more choices, encourages campaigns to engage voters on issues and helps ensure winners are elected with the support of a true majority of voters.
“There is not an easy, two-second explanation of how it works,” Sherif said. “But it does work.”