Top-Four with Ranked-Choice: Did Democrats make the difference in Alaska 2020?

It’s late November, and ballots are still being counted from the 2020 general election. In Florida, a Top-Two ballot measure received over 57% of the popular vote. The measure was a constitutional amendment and won’t be enacted because it required 60% support to become law. Nonetheless, compared to the most recent Top-Two measures that failed in Oregon and Arizona – this level of voter support is amazing. Either Florida is dramatically different from Oregon and Arizona – or – there’s been a monumental shift in public opinion over the last ten years. The results from Alaska appear to indicate the latter is true.

In Alaska, a “Top-Four with Ranked-Choice” ballot measure was approved with 50.5% of the vote. This ballot measure enacted a Top-Four primary election with Ranked-Choice in the general election. The conventional wisdom is: “The more complicated the ballot measure – the weaker the voter support.” Nonetheless, sponsors of the measure conducted early polling and found that combining a Top-Four with Ranked-Choice in a single measure resulted in a significant increase in voter support over either proposal alone. The results of the election indicate this polling was probably accurate.

Alaska was a solid Republican state in 2020. Donald Trump won the presidential election with 53.1% of the vote. Republican opposition to the election reform ballot measure was also very stout. The distribution of votes indicate that Republicans voted very strongly against election reform. Progressive Independents almost certainly voted for election reform, but this would only account for about 25% – 30% of the vote. (In Alaska and elsewhere, many Independents are not progressive.) These assumptions imply that Democrats voted strongly for election reform; not just a few Democrats – but most Democrats. There is simply no other way the 50% threshold could have been reached.

The same analysis can be applied to the outcome in Florida. The Top-Two ballot measure there, could not possibly have garnered 57% of the vote without overwhelming support from Democratic voters. Finally we can apply the same analysis to the failure of Top-Two ballot measures in Oregon and Arizona ten years ago. In both states, Democrats must have voted strongly against election reform. This is the only reasonable explanation for why these measures failed so badly. (66% to 34%)

There has been a dramatic shift in public opinion concerning election reform – but it probably isn’t Independents or Republicans who have altered their priorities. Rank and file Democratic voters, en-masse, are giving up on closed primaries. Is this a newfound collective resolve to support voting rights and free elections? No, probably not. More likely, the status quo is simply no longer working for Democrats.

What happened in the last 10 years that could have affected so many Democratic voters so significantly? It was probably the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. The nomination of Hillary Clinton and subsequent loss to Donald Trump was absolutely traumatic for nearly all Democrats. (Even more traumatic than Al Gore’s loss to George Bush in 2000.) The influence of “superdelegates” at the Democratic Convention was sharply reduced after the 2016 presidential primary, but the damage had already been done.

Moving forward from 2020, putting another Top-Two measure on the ballot in Florida would probably result in the same outcome. Florida Republicans and Independents will also likely view a “Top-Four with Ranked Choice” ballot measure as equivalent to the Top-Two measure, and their votes will be the same. Democrats however, may view a “Top-Four with Ranked Choice” measure as an acceptable alternative to the closed Democratic primary – a more productive means to consolidate all progressive voters behind a single candidate for each office.

In Alaska, the Top-Four primary process applies to all state and federal offices except U.S. President. This is due to the national nature of the presidential race. The Ranked-Choice process however, applies to all offices, including the presidential race. This must be done to avoid confusing voters with two different styles on the same ballot. Ranked Choice alone could make up the 3% difference needed to pass a ballot measure in Florida. Many voters are old enough to remember the 2000 U.S. Presidential race where George Bush won the nationwide election because Al Gore and Ralph Nader split the progressive vote.