(CN) — Last year, Alaska voted king crab the state’s No. 1 seafood over salmon, scallops and pollack.
What was unusual about this state-sponsored election was not just the candidates, but the process. It was the first time Alaskans used a ranked-choice ballot since they voted to adopt the electoral reform in 2020.
Unlike the system predominately used in the U.S., which awards the election to whoever gets the most votes, ranked-choice winners must get more than 50% of the vote. That number is tallied up as candidates who receive the least votes get swapped for voters' second-choice vote.
“In politics, we only have two parties that fell out of competition,” said Jason Grenn, executive director of Alaskans for Better Elections. “So there's no drive towards wanting to talk to all voters. There's no drive to talk towards new ideas or new incentives, and this system changes that.”
Grenn served one term in the statehouse as an independent. Even though Alaska last chose an independent governor in 2014, Grenn found running as a third-party candidate challenging.
“When I ran as an independent, one of the hardest things to do was convince people that they wouldn't waste their vote by voting for an independent,” Grenn recalled. Because Republicans and Democrats dominate most elections, many voters worry that choosing a third option discounts their vote.
In August, Alaska will put the seafood training to the test in the first ranked-choice election. The Last Frontier state may be the most recent to adopt the reform, but it’s unlikely to be the last. On top of 50 jurisdictions using ranked-choice voting nationwide, 22 legislatures considered bills that would create, expand or support the system this year.
“When you look at polls and people's dissatisfaction with Washington and Congress, you would say, well that must be a climate for a third party or independent,” said Rob Richie, president and CEO of FairVote, a nonpartisan organization advocating for election reform.
Richie joined the organization in 1992, when presidential candidate Ross Perot won 18% of the popular vote running as an independent. Perot remains the only candidate to make this big of a dent in the bipartisan system since 1912.
Richie said would-be third-party candidates often get pressured out of the race, like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in 2016 and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in 2020. Both were told they would take votes away from the Democratic candidate and give the election to the Republican nominee.
By eliminating these lost votes, a FairVote analysis of California elections suggested ranked-choice voting leads to a slight uptick in women and people of color running for office, groups most likely to be pressured out of running under the plurality system. Ranked-choice voting is used in six California cities, but not statewide.
“My background before seeking political office was as a volunteer on my neighborhood board. I had a professional career, but not a political career,” said Linea Palmisano, a Democrat serving her third term on the Minneapolis City Council. With a family to raise, Palmisano said, “ranked-choice voting was a friendlier way to be in a race when you don't have a political past or the political networking.”
Palmisano won her first election through the ranked-choice gamut and subsequent ones with an outright majority.
“In a traditional election you can skip doors that have the other guy’s sign on it,” Palmisano said. Under ranked-choice, she said, “the strategy is to speak with everyone so when you walk into office, you feel the charge to be more representative of the collective voice instead of just the voice of your own supporters.”
Rather than reward a party or position, many say ranked-choice voting rewards civilizing behavior and coalition building — a claim supported by some studies and rejected by others.