The days of broad bipartisan support for confirming the nominees for the US Supreme Court appear to be behind us. But it’s still important that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed Thursday by a 53-47 Senate majority that included both Democrats and Republican. And it’s worth noting that two of the three Republican votes came from senators representing states that have reformed electoral systems to allow for ranked voting.
Under Ranking Choice Voting, or RCV, voters are not just choosing between a Democratic and Republican candidate. They rank candidates on a list, and if their first-choice candidates lose, their votes are redistributed to their next candidates until a candidate emerges with a clear majority. A strength of the RCV system is that it encourages candidates to target voters across the political spectrum. Rather than just worrying about gaining a base of bipartisan supporters, candidates have an incentive to take positions that could attract votes from members of other parties.
That’s what Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Maine Sen. Susan Collins did when they joined the boldest independent member of the Republican faction in the Senate, Mitt Romney of Utah, and all 50 Senate Democrats to vote for the nomination of the Senate to confirm first black woman who will continue to serve the Supreme Court. Jackson’s qualifications, combined with her outstanding presentation before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the embarrassing misses by Republicans on the committee trying to discredit her, undoubtedly made it easier for Murkowski, Collins and Romney to vote for her confirmation. And all three of those senators have shown at least some willingness to break with their party leadership. But there’s a good case to be made that the RCV systems in Alaska and Maine have made it easier for Murkowski and Collins to follow their conscience and endorse a model candidate.
Murkowski’s vote was the most notable as she is up for re-election this year and faces a Republican rival, Kelly Tshibaka, a former Alaska Department of Administration commissioner who is supported by Donald Trump and his allies. Under the standard voting system used in the vast majority of American states, Murkowski would be fighting for her political life in an Aug. 16 Republican primary dominated by the party’s right wing. The prospect of Murkowski casting her ballot for a Democratic presidential nominee for the Supreme Court, which was rejected by a vast majority of Senate Republicans and by advocacy groups and donors associated with the Trump-dominated GOP, would be been zero.
But Alaska abandoned the traditional system in 2020 and approved sweeping reforms to develop a new approach to primary and general elections. Partisan primaries were replaced by a single non-partisan “blanket primary” that included candidates from all parties. The top four finishers then advance to a general election, which is decided by ranked voting, also known as an immediate runoff.
In practical terms, this means that Murkowski and Tshibaka are both likely to pass the primary and end up in the November election, likely with a lesser-known Democrat and perhaps with a libertarian or independent. It is not unreasonable to assume that this prospect gave Murkowski an additional incentive to vote for Jackson.
“[Murkowski’s] will require moderate Republican, Independent and Democratic votes in November. She knows she’s going to need those second and third election votes,” said Rob Richie, president of FairVote, the electoral reform group that has long advocated for priority voting and other initiatives to expand and improve democracy. “Under the circumstances, she couldn’t alienate the Democrats. I think it really made her do it [supporting Jackson]. She couldn’t have the Democrats saying, ‘She wouldn’t even vote for our very sane, highly qualified Supreme Court nominee.’”
Maine has a slightly different RCV system. Under the Maine system, that was implemented in 2018, there is no bipartisan blanket area code. Instead, major-party nominees, as well as independent and third-party candidates, appear on the November ballot, and voters can then rank them. But the Maine system still creates incentives for officials to take positions that attract voters from other parties.
“There is [Collins] Options that she might not otherwise have,” Richie explained.
Both Collins and Murkowski announced their decision to assist Jackson with clear guidance as to the candidate’s qualifications for High Court service. You didn’t mention any voting systems. But Murkowski has reflected that she is seeking re-election this year, tell According to reporters, she “took a certain risk” when she decided to break with most Senate Republicans to endorse a Democratic presidential nominee for the court.
There was widespread speculation that Alaska’s new system has significantly reduced Murkowski’s risk. In a 2021 analysis of Alaska’s RCV reform Jeannette Leea senior researcher at the Sightline Institute’s Anchorage office, noted, “Alaska’s electoral reforms grant Murkowski even greater freedom to follow her conscience and be pragmatic… The new system has essentially relieved Murkowski of the danger of being outflanked by extreme partisan a Area code of the closed party.”
That’s the genius of ladder voting, Richie explained as he reflected on the Republicans who voted to confirm Judge Jackson. “This shows how electoral systems can really incentivize elected officials to break out of the party scheme. Reforms like these help us move beyond knee-jerk zero-sum calculations. They create incentives for senators to leave narrowly defined ideological and political pigeonholes.”