Task force faces tangled primary questions

Posted: Monday, March 05, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- The legal snarl entangling Alaska's primary election system hasn't got much attention in the Legislature this year, but that's likely to change soon as a task force and lawmakers try to replace a format invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Alaska's old system had a ballot listing all candidates, with voters free to choose a Republican here, a Democrat there, a Green in a third race, and so forth. The candidate from each party with the most votes went on to the general election.

But the court ruled last fall that states cannot force political parties to allow members of other parties to participate in the nomination of their candidates.

That set up the current dilemma: How to placate voters confused and unhappy with last year's two-ballot primary and parties that want to limit their nomination processes to the faithful and the nonpartisan.

''Last year, people didn't like choosing a ballot,'' said Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, who has convened a task force that includes former lieutenant governors and attorneys general to recommend a new format. ''I can tell you, they're going to like some of the other options even less.''

The court's rejection of the +blanket+ primary system forced a hybrid two-ballot system last year. GOP candidates were on one ballot open only to Republicans and nonpartisans. A second ballot listed all other candidates and was open to anyone.

The search for a better way opened a can of political worms last week, with party spokesmen arguing before the task force for a broad range of incompatible ways to choose candidates.

--The Republican Party of Alaska wants to keep members of other parties out of its primary, a rule adopted by the party in 1992 but then trumped by state law. Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich said he's not opposed to a single ballot, provided the state's vote-counting machines are programmed to reject votes cast for Republicans by members of other parties. The GOP complains that Democrats have raided its primaries in the past, resulting in weaker and less conservative candidates.

''The rules that we implemented in 1992 allow 76 percent of the Alaskan electorate to participate in our process,'' Ruedrich said. Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-to-1 in Alaska, and more than half the state's voters declare no party affiliation, making them eligible to vote a GOP ballot.

--The Alaska Democratic Party wants a separate Democratic ballot open to all voters except members of parties that exclude other parties, an approach Ulmer, a Democrat, describes as ''turnabout is fair play.''

''Our first choice is for either an open or a +blanket+ primary,'' said Chris Cooke, the party's former chairman. ''That obviously isn't available.''

Democrats have benefited from the +blanket+ primary, especially in gubernatorial elections. Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles won his first term in 1994 after moderate Republican Jim Campbell emerged from the GOP primary and then-Lt. Gov. Jack Coghill ran under the banner of the Alaskan Independence Party, siphoning off thousands of conservative votes.

--The AIP would prefer to choose its candidates at a party convention to protect against nominees that don't share the party leadership's secessionist views, said Mark Chryson, the party's chairman. In 1998, Sylvia Sullivan of Valdez won the AIP nomination with 981 votes, and was later disavowed by the party.

''We want veto power over the candidates,'' Chryson said. ''That way they are legitimately representing the party and not deceiving the public.''

A bill sponsored by Sen. Kim Elton would restore the +blanket+ primary, but let parties who object to it opt out for privately operated selection methods such as conventions.

''You can keep your own selection process,'' said Elton, D-Juneau. ''But you'll also have to pay for it.''

Ulmer said she's not opposed to letting parties chose their nominees in caucuses or conventions, but adds it goes against a decades-long trend away from such closed methods toward a process more open to the public.

She's dubious about Ruedrich's idea of reprogramming the ballot-counting machines, fearing it would place a heavy burden on election workers. Hypothetically, a voter who didn't understand the rules might vote only for candidates he wasn't eligible to support, thus wasting his entire ballot.

''Who's going to tell them that? The poll worker can't explain that to every voter. That's not realistic,'' Ulmer said.

She's even less enthusiastic about radical changes, such as adopting the system used in Louisiana. There, the top two candidates in an open primary advance to the general election regardless of party.

Ulmer said the task force, which meets on Friday in Anchorage, hasn't reached a consensus yet. She says she's leaning toward a system with one nonpartisan ballot and one or more partisan ballots.

Since none of the parties has yet objected to allowing the vast nonpartisan vote into their primaries, the nonpartisan ballot would include all candidates and be open only to nonpartisans. Partisan ballots would list candidates from a single party. Voters would get the ballot that corresponds to their voter registration.

''You'd basically have the old +blanket+ primary for all nonpartisans,'' Ulmer said. ''And for partisan voters, they'd get their own ballots.''

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