“Scam to rig elections”: Tom Cotton fumes over Sarah Palin loss as GOP fans cry “stolen election”

Republicans claim a new ranked-choice system approved by Alaska voters is some kind of nefarious Democratic plot

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published September 1, 2022 9:30AM (EDT)

Former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., fumed over Alaska's new voter-approved voting system after Democrat Mary Peltola defeated former Republican Gov. Sarah Palin in a special U.S. House election decided by ranked-choice voting.

Peltola, a former state representative, became the first Alaska Native elected to Congress on Wednesday after edging out Palin 51.5% to 48.5% in a special election to replace the late Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. It was the state's first time using a ranked-choice voting system approved by voters in 2020. Under the rules, which are also used in New York City and other areas, voters can rank candidates in order of preference. If no one reaches 50% of the vote, the last-place candidate is eliminated and their votes are reallocated. The process continues until someone reaches a majority of the votes.

Peltola led among first-preference choices with 38% of first-place votes and overtook Palin as votes backing fellow Republican Nick Begich were reallocated. Peltola was aided by a "huge exhaustion rate" among Begich voters, only half of whom ranked Palin as their second choice while more than 20% did not rank anyone at all, election analyst Dave Wasserman noted on Twitter.

"In the end, Palin was so disliked [the election] wasn't even that close," he wrote.

Peltola will serve out the rest of Young's term until January but will still face Palin, Begich and others in a general election in November for a full term.

Cotton, who has been discussed as a potential presidential hopeful, raged over the voter-backed voting changes on Twitter, an increasingly common Republican tactic when their candidate fails to gain the support of a majority of voters.

"Ranked-choice voting is a scam to rig elections," Cotton wrote. "60% of Alaska voters voted for a Republican, but thanks to a convoluted process and ballot exhaustion—which disenfranchises voters—a Democrat 'won.'"

Despite Cotton's complaint, Peltola would have still won under traditional rules because she finished first while the two Republicans split the GOP vote share. Voting rights advocates have largely supported ranked-choice voting because it requires the winner to gain a popular majority while traditional rules could allow more extreme candidates to game the system and win with only a plurality in multi-candidate races.

"How dare we have a system that doesn't give the victory to the candidate who won the popular vote!" columnist Noah Smith quipped in response to Cotton's gripe.

Palin also complained about the new system after her defeat.

"Ranked-choice voting was sold as the way to make elections better reflect the will of the people," she said in a statement. "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."

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Palin even complained about the new voter-approved system before any votes were even cast. She decried the new system as "crazy, convoluted, [and] undesirable" even though voters were reportedly comfortable with the new rules and the election went smoothly.

"Please, learn from Alaska's mistake. Voters are confused and angry, and feel disenfranchised by this cockamamie system that makes it impossible to trust that your vote will even be counted the way you intended," Palin said last month ahead of her loss, alleging a conspiracy by the "corrupt political establishment" to "silence us."

Palin stoked fraud fears months before any votes were cast, raising baseless concerns about Alaska's mail voting system.

"It's mail-in only ballots. No hand counting to tabulate, got to go through a Dominion computer to count everything," she told Fox News host Mark Levin in May, echoing a litany of TrumpWorld conspiracy theories. "Ballots are pouring in even though people aren't asking for the ballots, but they're being mailed to everybody," she complained, adding that she may have to spend the final weeks of the campaign "wasting donor's money, campaigning trying to woo people who've already voted. It's a bizarre system up here."

Palin supporters on Trump's Twitter knockoff Truth Social went further, baselessly alleging that the election was "stolen."

"They just stole a seat in Alaska," one user claimed.

"It's rigged," another user opined.

"Republicans way outnumber Democrats in Alaska," another user wrote. "Something is fishy."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

MORE FROM Igor Derysh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2022 Elections Aggregate Politics Sarah Palin Tom Cotton