Ulmer, elections director urge quick action on primary rules

Posted: Thursday, February 08, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- The state elections director urged lawmakers Wednesday to act quickly on a new law for the Alaska primary, warning that waiting until next year could overburden election officials already faced with newly redrawn election districts.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling effectively outlawed Alaska's traditional blanket primary last year, forcing the state to hold a hybrid election in which Republicans appeared on one ballot and all other candidates appeared on another. That election was held under emergency regulations written by Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer because the blanket primary is written into state law.

''We are daunted by the change in the primary right on top of reapportionment,'' Elections Director Janet Kowalski told a joint meeting of the House Judiciary and State Affairs Committee. ''We will be exhausted and we will probably come back to you and ask to delay the primary.''

Kowalski's warning seemed to alarm lawmakers, many of whom will be running in districts redrawn using new population figures due from the 2000 Census later this year. Delaying the late August primary would send candidates scrambling for money and supporters during a shortened general election campaign.

''That's a hell of a threat because I've been through a postponed primary,'' said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Norm Rokeberg, R-Anchorage.

The elections issues presentation by Ulmer, who oversees the state's elections, and Kowalski revealed some bipartisan dissatisfaction with the way the closed primary was conducted last year.

The Republican Party of Alaska's rules -- which the Supreme Court decision requires the state to abide by -- closes its primary to Democrats and members of other recognized parties, while allowing Republican, undeclared and nonpartisan voters. Republicans contend Democrats have crossed over to vote help nominate weaker or less conservative GOP candidates.

But the two-ballot system used in August also effectively prevented Republicans from voting for candidates from other parties. And because no statewide races were on the primary ballot last year, voters in several areas received ballots with only one candidate listed, prompting widespread confusion, grumbling and complaints. More than half the state's registered voters declare no party affiliation.

''Somewhere along the line we're going to have to have something that includes the vast majority of people who aren't in a party,'' said House State Affairs Committee Chairman John Coghill, R-North Pole.

The ideas bouncing around the committee room gave a preview of what will likely be a hot debate this year. House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz suggested that the Republicans should pay for their part of the primary, which added $252,000 to the normal $900,000 cost of the election.

''I just think the fiscal conservatives at the table would jump at the chance,'' said Berkowitz, D-Anchorage.

House Majority Leader Jeannette James pondered the notion of abandoning the primary altogether and allowing parties to choose candidates at their conventions.

''As a conservative, how much would we save if we just didn't have a primary?'' asked James, R-North Pole.

''Roughly a million dollars,'' Ulmer replied. But she added that primaries have gradually replaced party nominating conventions over the past few decades as states saw a public interest in having voters nominate candidates instead of the party faithful.

After the meeting, Randy Ruedrich, chairman of the Republican Party of Alaska, suggested that the party's rules might be accommodated by reprogramming the state's new optical vote-counting machines. Voters' party affiliations would be marked on ballots and the machine would disregard any votes cast for Republicans by members of other parties.

Kowalski said the system might be able to handle such a task, but warned that the state's five other parties may adopt rules that further complicate the issue. The Alaskan Independence Party, for instance, has indicated it would prefer to choose its candidates at a party convention, Kowalski said.

Ulmer has appointed a task force that includes four former lieutenant governors, two former attorneys general and a representative of the League of Women voters to discuss and recommend how Alaska should run its primaries. The task force holds its first meeting Thursday.

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