Is it time for state to stop conducting primary elections?

Posted: Sunday, July 21, 2002

The Aug. 27 primary offers a catalyst for Alaskans to debate: Is it time for the state to quit paying for primary elections and let the various parties decide who will appear on the general election ballot?

Out of 450,141 registered voters in Alaska, 227,326 -- or slightly more than 50 percent -- claim no allegiance to any particular political party. They are either registered as "nonpartisan" or "undeclared."

The numbers of Alaskans who align themselves with a party break down as follows: 113,380, or about 25 percent, are registered Republicans; 71,625, or about 16 percent, Democrats; 18,554, or about 4 percent, Alaskan Independence Party; 7,234, or about 1.6 percent, Libertarians; 4,764, or about 1.1 percent, Green Party; 2,872, or about .6 percent, Republican Moderates; and 4,386, or about 1 percent, "others."

What those numbers mean is the Aug. 27 primary effectively disenfranchises more than 50 percent of Alaska voters who don't want to be stuck with a particular political party label.

Yet, when they go to the polls on Aug. 27, if they want to vote, they will be forced to choose from among six primary ballots: one for the Alaska Democratic Party, one for the Alaska Libertarian Party, one for the Alaskan Independence Party, one for the Green Party of Alaska, one for the Republican Moderate Party of Alaska and one for the Republican Party of Alaska.

Such a system may serve the interests of the political parties, but it certainly does not serve the interests of most Alaskans.

This year's primary ballot -- excuse us, six primary ballots represent the worst of partisan politics.

Those six ballots force Alaskans to choose parties, not people, in the primary election. Those six ballots perpetuate an us-vs.-them mentality among politicians of different parties. Those six ballots promote loyalty to a party, not to the public interest.

And they provide one more reason for people not to vote.

Those who support the changes in the primary system argue it is unfair for voters of other parties to be able to choose an opposing party's candidates. One Republican Party official described it this way: "Certainly it would not be right for someone who is a Democrat or a Green Party member to help the Republicans pick their candidate. That would be like letting the opposing team pick your starting lineup in a basketball game."

That's a valid point, but not one that's worth turning a primary elections system that has worked on its head.

Besides, while a few voters may want to waste their vote on a candidate they really don't support, it's far more likely that those who vote take their obligation more seriously than to pull a stunt like that.

Unfortunately, the political parties' insistence to their right to exclude members of other parties is one more reason for Alaskans to throw their hands up in disgust over the system, one more reason not to get involved.

The year's six ballots will force some Alaskans to compromise their ideology in order to vote Aug. 27 -- they will be forced to choose a party ballot, even if they want to vote only on the ballot measure that will be before voters.

Is that what the political parties really want? If so, Alaskans need to question if that's what they want. And they need to ask themselves: Do political parties have too much power?

There's nothing that can change the six ballots in the Aug. 27 primary, but the system that forces voters to choose a party ballot should be changed.

The best change would be for the parties to tell the Legislature the law needs to be rewritten, because they really don't want to disenfranchise the more than 50 percent of Alaska voters who claim no party allegiance from the primary process.

Barring that, Alaskans should insist the state quit paying for primary elections. Low voter turnout, the state's budget crunch and the number of Alaskans who prefer not to be affiliated with any party offer compelling evidence that no state-run primary would be better than what's happening Aug. 27.

By the way, July 28 is the last day for voters to change their party affiliation, if they wish to do so before the Aug. 27 primary. It would send a strong message for change if those people now registered to the various parties would change their registration to "nonpartisan" or "undeclared." The parties may be able to ignore 50 percent of Alaskans who are now so registered, but it would be harder to ignore 90 percent of Alaskans who, by changing their registration, said they did not want to be a part of the partisan politics that's tearing Alaska apart.

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