July 18, 2002 The Juneau Empire says new party ballot system places new responsibility on voters

Posted: Monday, July 22, 2002

''No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the 'worst' form of government, except all those others that have been tried from time to time.'' -- Winston Churchill

It is ironic that something intended to benefit the public and streamline a process tends, instead, to have the opposite effect. Such is the case, it seems, with the state's new primary voting system.

In recent days, Alaskans have received information from the state about the changes in the voting format that voters will face when they go to the polls on Aug. 27. With the exception of the last primary two years ago, when the Republican Party had a separate ballot and all other candidates appeared on a second ballot, Alaska has traditionally grouped all candidates on a single ballot. Voters could then choose from any of them.

This year, thanks to a federal court ruling, there will be six different ballots -- one for each of the parties recognized by the state Division of Elections. Voters registered with one of those parties will be able to choose only from among their party's candidates. Voters registered as nonpartisan or undeclared can choose any of the six ballots.

If that sounds confusing, there's probably good reason for it. While the system is more in line with the way primaries are conducted in most other states, it does not speak to the vitality of Alaska's electoral politics or the uniqueness of the electorate, which shows a decided tendency away from two-party politics.

Statewide, more voters consider themselves undeclared and nonpartisan than anything else. A minority of registered voters around Alaska -- 41 percent -- consider themselves either Republican or Democrat.

So, aside from the confusion that the new system is bound to create, there is also a danger that the system will further alienate an already frighteningly disenfranchised electorate, which turns out in seemingly smaller numbers with each election.

One need only look at the recently ended legislative session to see the pitfalls of the two-party system. The self-interest of a ''party first'' mindset perpetuated ill will and gridlock and had little to do with the proper conduct of the people's business. Sadly, the new primary system is more likely to feed the two-party beast than reform it, since the ballots with the most choices belong to the major parties.

But, like Winston Churchill's perception of democracy, the system, imperfect as it is, is what we're stuck with. The responsibility now falls to individual voters to make the most of it. We still live in a free country, after all, where we retain the power to have a hand in our own political fate.

The freedom to vote should never be taken for granted. And while we believe the system could be far more user-friendly, we realize the additional burden of responsibility we must shoulder in navigating the maze of the new system as we exercise our important right to vote.

Citizens wishing to vote in the Aug. 27 primary have until July 28 to register or to change their party affiliation.

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