Democratic U.S. House Candidate Mary Peltola hugs a supporter during a campaign event in Juneau. After ranked choice voting tabulation, Peltola won the special election to fill Alaska’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Peltola is the first Alaska Native to be elected to U.S. Congress. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Democratic U.S. House Candidate Mary Peltola hugs a supporter during a campaign event in Juneau. After ranked choice voting tabulation, Peltola won the special election to fill Alaska’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Peltola is the first Alaska Native to be elected to U.S. Congress. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Peltola makes history

With ranked choice victory, Democrat set to become first Alaska Native elected to Congress

Mary Peltola is slated to be the first Alaska Native member of Congress after prevailing by a wider-than-expected margin over Republican Sarah Palin, 51.47%-48.54%, in the state’s first-ever ranked choice election, according to results tabulated Wednesday.

Peltola will also be Alaska’s first Democratic U.S. representative in over 50 years and first-ever woman elected to represent the state in the House if the results become official.

She won by earning enough second-choice votes among people ranking Republican Nick Begich III as their first pick. The Democrat had a nearly 9% lead on first-choice ballots and the 35% of second-choice votes she received enabled her to withstand the anticipated near-even final tally against Palin.

Begich, the presumed favorite in the race earlier this year, finished third among the final candidates and thus was eliminated at the onset of Wednesday’s tally that was livestreamed at 4 p.m. by the state Division of Elections.

The ranked-choice tabulation took only a few minutes, with Palin getting 27,042 second-choice votes, Peltola 15,445 and 11,222 declared “exhausted” with no second-choice candidate.

“I’m honored and humbled by the support I have received from across Alaska,” Peltola said in a prepared statement immediately after the tally. “I look forward to continuing Don Young’s legacy of bipartisanship, serving all Alaskans and building support for Alaska’s interests in DC.

“We built a great deal of momentum in a short time. I plan to continue introducing myself to Alaskans and working to earn their trust.”

Palin, who harshly and at times inaccurately attacked the ranked choice voting process, continued that tone in her statement after the results were published.

“Ranked-choice voting was sold as the way to make elections better reflect the will of the people,” she said. “As Alaska — and America — now sees, the exact opposite is true. The people of Alaska do not want the destructive democrat agenda to rule our land and our lives, but that’s what resulted from someone’s experiment with this new crazy, convoluted, confusing ranked-choice voting system. It’s effectively disenfranchised 60% of Alaska voters.

“Though we’re disappointed in this outcome, Alaskans know I’m the last one who’ll ever retreat. Instead, I’m going to reload. With optimism that Alaskans learn from this voting system mistake and correct it in the next election.”

Peltola’s unofficial victory culminates a series of surprising developments since the special election primary in June, when she was somewhere in the pack of 48 candidates, behind a presumed trio of front-runners including Palin and Begich.

But Al Gross, an independent expected to draw the most Democratic votes as a past congressional candidate endorsed by that party, dropped out immediately after finishing third, elevating Peltola from fourth place to third. Her chances were further bolstered when fifth-place contender Tara Sweeney, a moderate Republican, was declared ineligible to become the fourth candidate in the election.

Peltola emerged with a first-choice lead of several points on the night of the Aug. 16 special election, which grew steadily as questioned and absentee ballots were added during the next 15 days.

But most political analysts nonetheless predicted a dead-even final tally between Peltola and Palin, with pollster Ivan Moore predicting a Palin win by 50.7% to 49.3%.

”Republicans didn’t believe the polls,” Moore stated just after Wednesday’s results were announced, in a repost of a Twitter message from a few days ago. “They could SO EASILY have had this thing sewn up weeks ago by recognizing the slam dunk (Republican) winner they had in Nick Begich. But no, in the right-wing bubbleverse, Palin 60% negatives aren’t real.”

The results are unofficial, with certification expected Friday and candidates having up to 10 days to challenge the results afterward. The special election to fill the remainder of the late Don Young’s term after he died in March means the winner will serve only until next January, likely serving only a few weeks in Washington, D.C., before the November general election and during a lame-duck session afterward.

Peltola is likely to spend her short time as a congressperson focusing mostly on a nonpolitical agenda, said Josh Wilson, a Peltola campaign spokesperson.

“The biggest thing with Representative Young’s vacancy in D.C. is Alaskans haven’t had a congressperson for a long time,” he said. “I think what’s she’s most interested in is having a congressperson who can help them with constituent affairs.”

At the same time, Peltola will likely get committee assignments from the Democratic House leadership, and she has expressed interest in the Natural Resources and Transportation committees, Wilson said. She also will be active in any upcoming efforts to deal with high-priority issues such as inflation.

About a dozen reporters and observers crowded outside a conference room in the Division of Elections’ director’s office just before the ranked choice tally. Director Gail Fenumiai explained the process as results were displayed on a projection screen during the livestream as elections programming manager Brian Jackson entered the first-choice tally, then added the second-choice votes after Begich finished in his expected third place.

“The ranked choice voting shows round-by-round what happened in each round,” Fenumiai said as the count narrowed to the final two candidates. “Nick Begich was eliminated because he has the least amount of votes.”

Seconds later as new numbers flashed onto the screen Fenumiai announced “round two is showing the leader, which is Mary Peltola.”

The new voting method, as well as the profiles of the top two candidates and the race’s broader political significance, are attracting widespread global media attention.

Many of the immediate headlines after the unofficial tally highlighted Peltola becoming the first Alaska Native member of Congress. But plenty of others, including CNN, led with “Sarah Palin loses special election,” often noting it was due to ranked choice voting.

The New York Times called the results a “major upset” with “potential to reverberate nationally” as Democratic leaders are expressing optimism about avoiding a “red wave” in the House in November, and possibly a slim chance of retaining their majority.

“Absolutely we’re expecting that the (National Republican Congressional Committee) and Alaska Republicans are going to put a lot of resources into Alaska to unseat her,” Wilson said.

The special election is in some ways a warmup for the November general election, when the same finalists — plus a fourth candidate finishing far behind them in the primary conducted the same day as the special election — will again compete for the upcoming full two-year term of the state’s lone U.S. House seat.

The first-ever ranked choice general election will also feature four candidates competing for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican incumbent Lisa Murkowski and for the Alaska governor’s job held by Republican Mike Dunleavy.

Alaska voters in 2020 narrowly opted for the new elections system, following a primary where the top four candidates advance regardless of party.

While the new system has been strongly and sometimes inaccurately criticized by some, results of a survey released Wednesday by Alaskans for Better Elections states “95% of Alaskans reported receiving instructions on how to rank their choices and 85% of Alaskans reported ranked choice voting to be ’simple,’” according to a news release by the organization.

“These are fantastic numbers — they really reflect the willingness of Alaskans to learn about our new system and understand the benefits,” said Jason Grenn, the organization’s executive director. “It’s also a testament to the hard work of the Division of Elections and many organizations across the state who are determined to make sure our elections inspire confidence and work well for each and every Alaskan voter.

“We will continue to work with our fellow Alaskans to ensure these reforms are seen for what they are — nonpartisan, simple and meant to put voters first.”

Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com.

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire File
This combination photo shows Mary Peltola during a campaign event in Juneau and Sarah Palin during a rally featuring former President Donald Trump in Anchorage. Palin and Peltola were No. 1 and No. 2 in voting respectively prior to Wednesday’s ranked choice tabulation. Peltola, a Democrat, held an advantage of about eight percentage points following the first round of ballot counting. Palin, a Republican, has been critical of ranked choice voting during her campaign but could be the first candidate to win a race under the new system.

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire File This combination photo shows Mary Peltola during a campaign event in Juneau and Sarah Palin during a rally featuring former President Donald Trump in Anchorage. Palin and Peltola were No. 1 and No. 2 in voting respectively prior to Wednesday’s ranked choice tabulation. Peltola, a Democrat, held an advantage of about eight percentage points following the first round of ballot counting. Palin, a Republican, has been critical of ranked choice voting during her campaign but could be the first candidate to win a race under the new system.

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