Nice try, pollock: How Alaska’s most prolific fish almost won the state’s ranked choice mock election

Pollock photo by NOAA Fishwatch

For a few glory-filled hours, the humble pollock was on top of the world. Or, more accurately, the fish was the frontrunner in an online mock election for favorite Alaska seafood.

The state Division of Elections established the tool to give Alaskans a chance to practice ranked choice voting before it’s deployed in real elections next year.

Though pollock’s apparent triumph had Alaskans questioning the integrity of the election, its victory was short-lived.

Let’s recap the mock election so far: The Division of Elections put 18 seafood candidates on a primary ballot on June 1. Nearly 4,000 online votes rolled in. Just as in the real primary, voters were to choose one candidate. The top four would advance.

“We’ve got Pollock in first, weathervane scallops in second, king crab in third and halibut in fourth,” said Tad Milbourn, an RCV advocate and creator of the RankedVote app the Division is using. “So those would be the four that go on to the ranked choice general election.”

(Milbourn spoke before polls closed. At the last minute, king salmon edged out halibut for fourth place and a spot on the general ballot.)

That pollock won the primary with a whopping 27% of the vote seemed odd. Pollock is not a fish Alaskans stand in rivers all night to catch. They don’t spend hours cleaning, smoking and putting up little jars of pollock. Customers don’t ask for it by name at fish counters.

“It’s just not a big demand in the fresh market,” said Rob Winfree, vice president of 10th & M Seafoods, which has been selling fish in Anchorage for many decades.

Anchorage attorney Scott Kendall (Scott Kendall)

To pollock’s credit, it is Alaska’s most abundant seafood product. It’s harvested and processed on massive ships in the Bering Sea. It’s the fish in fish sticks, the filet in McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish. 

This week, the Division of Elections opened the mock general election for seafood. Just like the one Alaskans will find when they vote for real next November, it has four names on it, and the voter is instructed to rank each candidate, 1 through 4.

But unlike in the real election, the mock seafood election lets you see real-time results. You can watch how the last place finisher’s votes are redistributed until one candidate wins a majority of votes cast.

And on Wednesday, Day 1 of the general, pollock was running away with it. For a while, there was no need to examine voters’ second choices. The white fish was winning the majority in the first round.

“The very obvious conclusion was, you know, someone was goofing with the results,” said attorney and political strategist Scott Kendall.

Kendall co-authored the 2020 ballot measure that requires ranked choice voting in all Alaska elections starting next year. He knew something was off with that seafood vote.

“If I walk down the street and talk to 100 Alaskans, I’d be hard pressed to find four or five who identified pollock as their favorite Alaska seafood,” he said.

Did Kendall worry a pollock win would discredit ranked choice voting? Yes and no. On the one hand, everyone is used to online marketing polls that produce silly results. But Kendall said this little poll has more stature.

“It’s the Division of Elections,” he said. “A totally goofy outcome leads to an unfortunate conversation of what went on there.”

A few hours after polls opened in the mock general election, Division of Elections Public Relations Manager Tiffany Montemayor suspected duplicate votes — that is, votes from the same computers — were skewing the results. Montemayor belatedly checked the box to eliminate duplicates from the count.

And poof! In an instant, pollock plunged. It had close to 300 votes. It was left with 15.

In all, about 400 mock general ballots were eliminated as duplicates. They were heavily weighted toward pollock.

Who would do such a thing? On social media, speculation was rampant. Were Russian bots at work? Was this a way to undermine election integrity?

Some saw the fingerprints of Big Pollock. They were not wrong.

“We certainly have done a number of posts telling people that we’re really proud to see Alaska Pollock available as an option” on the mock ballot, said Craig Morris, CEO of the Association of Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers.

https://twitter.com/wildAKpollock/status/1404528850940219397?s=20

The pollock marketing association has worked for years to rebrand pollock as a healthy and desirable fish, fit for a chef. Morris said they’ve tried to arouse passion for pollock.

If a lot of the pollock votes were duplicates, Morris attributes that to the zeal of the newly converted.

“We’ve done everything we can to promote our fish in a way that we create evangelists,” he said. “So obviously we created a couple of evangelists, at least, out there.”

Polls close in the seafood election June 30.

Montemayor, the Division of Elections PR manager, couldn’t say how many duplicates propelled pollock to win the primary. The division will hold more mock contests to educate Alaskans about ranked choice voting, she said in an email, and duplicate votes won’t be counted.

“The Division strives to administer fair and accurate elections, even pretend ones,” she said.