Alaska primary ballot ends up in court

Posted: Friday, August 29, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) Alaska's closed primary ballot system violates the constitutional rights of voters, candidates and political parties by restricting their right to associate, a lawyer said Thursday.

Kevin Morford, a lawyer for two political groups trying to return Alaska to a more open ballot system, presented his case before Superior Court Mark Rindner.

''Ballot choices are being restricted,'' Morford told the judge, who did not issue a ruling and predicted the case would eventually end up in the state Supreme Court.

After the hearing, Morford said, ''We believe this is a violation of basic constitutional rights. ... It interferes with their rights of political association.''

Rindner directed most of his questions to Assistant Attorney General Sarah Felix, who argued that it is in the state's interest to have the modified closed ballot. Under this system, where separate ballots are issued for each party, voters are forced to make a choice, she said.

''The courts have said voting across party lines is not a constitutional right,'' Felix said.

When the Republican-led Legislature made the change in 2001, it was trying to reduce voter confusion created by having candidates from several different parties on one ballot, she said.

''They didn't want voter confusion. We had voter confusion in the past,'' Felix said.

The Republican Moderate Party and the Green Party of Alaska both decertified because they failed to get 3 percent in the last governor's race filed the lawsuit against the state, the Division of Elections and its director, Janet Kowalski.

They want to appear on the same ballot, and would welcome any other political parties on their ballot as well.

''Republicans wanted to close the primary and then they got it through,'' said Ray Metcalfe, founder and chairman of the Republican Moderate Party. ''The rest of us all wanted to be on a common ballot.''

Jim Sykes, co-chairman of the Green Party of Alaska, said if there was a more open ballot, a pool of an estimated 30,000 voters would be available to minority parties.

Alaska for many years had an open primary ballot system in which voters could choose any candidate they wanted. The state moved to a two-ballot system in 2000 in which Republican candidates were on one ballot open only to Republicans and nonpartisans, and the other candidates were on the other ballot. In 2002, the Division of Elections, in response to the move by the Republican-led Legislature, issued separate ballots for each party.

''I don't think that any other political party wanted to do this,'' Sykes said.

The Republican Party in Alaska had objected to open primaries because it allowed voters from other parties to help choose the Republican nominees who would go on to the general election.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 ruled that blanket open primaries are invalid in states where political parties object to their use.

The next year, then-Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer appointed a task force that recommended allowing an open ballot for voters registered as nonpartisan or undeclared. But majority Republicans in the Legislature approved a more closed system.

Scott Sterling, Democratic Party chairman in Alaska, said the Republican-led Legislature had enough votes in 2001 to get the bill passed, and now voters have fewer choices and are turned off by the political process.

''This is all part of the Republican effort to turn Alaska into a one-party dictatorship,'' Sterling said.

But Randy Ruedrich, the chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, said the plaintiffs are using the case to disguise a lack of interest in their own parties.

''Going to court to complain about the inability of getting people to run for office is not a logical thing to do,'' Ruedrich said.

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