Alaska’s new voting system and an unexpected special election have attracted a crowd of 48 candidates to run for the state’s lone House seat this year, including former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and a Democratic socialist from the city of North Pole, who legally changed his name to Santa Claus.
The contest on Saturday is the state’s first foray into nonpartisan primaries and ranked-choice voting after a narrowly passed 2020 ballot measure upended the typical party primary system.
The new system had been expected to launch later in the state’s scheduled August primary, but longtime Rep. Don Young’s death in March forced a special election to fill his seat more quickly. Now, onlookers and candidates wonder how voters will engage with the new system: Will they stick with party-endorsed candidates, or will they give a more nontraditional candidate, like Claus, a chance at a seat in Congress?
"The question, of course, will be do Alaska citizens fully grasp the power right now that they have to look at these candidates as individuals and not as party folks. Or will we cleave more closely to parties?" said Amy Lauren Lovecraft, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "That is the open question."
Here’s how the new voting system works: Alaskans cast ballots for single candidates in an open, nonpartisan primary race. The top four vote-getters advance to the general election, in which voters rank four candidates in order of preference. Any candidate who gets more than 50 percent of the vote wins the race. If no one gets a majority, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and ballots cast for the eliminated candidate are recast for voters’ second choices. The elimination and retabulation process continues until only two candidates are left. The candidate with the most votes wins.
Front-runners in the special election include Palin, the state's former governor, who is running with the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, and Nick Begich, a Republican who has won the endorsement of the state GOP and whose grandfather held the seat before Young. On the left, surgeon Al Gross, a 2020 Senate candidate, is running as a nonpartisan, while Mary Peltola, a Democratic former state legislator, is one of four Native Alaskans who are running. (Gross lost his 2020 race to Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan by nearly 13 points.)
Other former state politicians, a gardening expert and Claus help round out the massive field.
Ivan Moore, a longtime pollster in the state, said the open primary gives a wider variety of candidates — including those who don't fit their party's mold — significantly better shots at success.
“Established, credible, smart people perceive they’ve got a chance, because all they’ve got to do is get into the final four,” he said. “Once you’re in the final four, anything can happen.”
Moore said his May survey of the race found Palin, Begich, Gross and Claus making it into the top four, when second- and third-choice votes will become real wild cards in the ranked-choice contest. Begich won the eventual ranked-choice contest in a variety of simulations, but Moore said that isn’t guaranteed.
He’s got his eyes on Claus.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up snagging the seat for real, through a combination of people who are just being mischievous and wanting to see a situation where Santa Claus wins,” Moore said.
Claus, who is refusing all campaign contributions and directs voters to BernieSanders.com/issues for his policy views, is counting on his name recognition. Claus, a North Pole City Council member, said he changed his name nearly two decades ago after he grew a white, bushy beard, which earned him the nickname. He discovered that it also helped him lobby his legislators more effectively.
“This ranked-choice voting presents a unique opportunity this first time around, and I think a lot of us are taking advantage of it,” he said.
Former state legislator Andrew Halcro is running as a nonpartisan candidate. “I’m a moderate Republican. I’m pro-choice," Halcro said. “I would never survive a Republican primary. In ranked-choice voting … I have a chance.”
Halcro and Claus are running only in the special election to hold the seat for the rest of the year; a slightly smaller crowd of 31 candidates is running for the full term.
Claus said he wants to give the eventual seat-holder a "clean slate," while Halcro said it's best if the eventual long-term representative isn't forced to run for re-election and simultaneously serve in Washington this fall.
Critics worry that the open primary and ranked-choice general election system will confuse voters, particularly because this single House race will require four different elections this year — a primary and a general election for the last few months of Young's term and a primary and a general election for the two-year term starting in 2023. The special election's general election and the seat's regular primary are both scheduled for Aug. 16, meaning voters will be picking one House candidate for the regular term and ranking four candidates for the special election's monthslong term at the same time.
Alaska Democrats' Executive Director Lindsay Kavanaugh said the party has moved up a planned voter education campaign and doubled its budget to introduce voters to the system.
Begich said the system will make politics more contentious and keep like-minded candidates competing against one another into a general election.
“We’ll have likely two candidates from the left, two candidates from the right,” he said. “From that perspective in this race, we will be running a primary and a general — in practice — at the same time.”
Alaska’s new voting system is unique in the U.S., although other states use elements of it. California and Washington have nonpartisan primaries, for example, but they elevate only two — not four — candidates to the general election, while Maine and dozens of cities use ranked-choice voting in certain contests.
Nevada and Missouri are in the early stages of proposing ballot measures to implement voting systems like Alaska’s, said Rob Richie, the CEO of FairVote, which advocates for ranked-choice voting around the country.
He said ranked-choice voting creates incentives for candidates to find more common ground and engage more deeply with more voters, which leads to more positive political discourse over time.
"It takes some time to adapt," he said.