Closed primaries mean voters will participate less

Posted: Sunday, September 07, 2003

Does Alaska's closed primary system violate the constitutional rights of voters, candidates and political parties by restricting their right to associate?

Does the system eliminate voter confusion or cause more?

Should people of different political persuasions be able to help select candidates from another party which will appear on the general election ballot?

Those are just a few of the questions Superior Court Judge Mark Rindner is considering in a lawsuit filed by the Republican Moderate Party and the Green Party of Alaska against the state, the Division of Elections and its director. In all likelihood, the case will end up before the state Supreme Court.

Other questions which also should be asked as the lawsuit is debated include:

Who does the closed primary system help?

Who does the closed primary system hurt?

Whose rights are more important: those of the political parties or those of the voters of Alaska?

A look at the numbers will help answer those questions.

As of Aug. 4, there were 460,577 registered voters in Alaska, according to the Division of Elections.

Of those, 117,394, about 25 percent, were registered as Republicans; 71,191, about 15 percent, were registered as Democrats; 17,242, almost 4 percent, were registered as members of the Alaska Independence Party; and 6,814, about 1.5 percent, were registered as members of the Alaska Libertarian Party. That's about 45.5 percent of Alaska's voters.

The rest the majority were listed as undeclared (168,496 about 36 percent), nonpartisan (67,530 about 15 percent); or other (11,910 about 3 percent).

There may be lots of different ways to interpret those numbers, but at least one valid interpretation is this: Most Alaskans don't give a hoot about party politics. They want to vote for people, not parties. If that sometimes means voting for Republicans and sometimes for Democrats and sometimes for Libertarians or Alaska Independents or some other political persuasion, that's OK with them. The ability to cross over party lines makes them more comfortable with the political process; they don't have to fear being labeled an "R" or a "D" or a what-have-you. Alaskans, after all, used to pride themselves as being independent thinkers. Has something changed that they now want to think along party lines?

The ability to vote people, not parties, also frees candidates to speak their minds and vote their consciences. There are fewer reasons to toe the party line if you are being elected by people of all political persuasions, not just a single party. A single party can't control a candidate who has a broad range of support.

That has the potential to make for better government. Instead of legislative votes up and down party lines, those votes are going to be based on individual ideas of what's best for Alaska, not a political party's ideas of what's best for Alaska. There's going to be more working together in the halls of the Legislature. There's going to be more loyalty to the public's interests than the party's.

Allowing people to cross party lines in the primary election makes for more involvement in the political process. Without that freedom that they once enjoyed, Alaskans are suspicious of the process. It just seems like more politics as usual. Why vote? What's the purpose of getting involved?

While some will argue a closed primary reduces voter confusion at the polls, we would argue a closed primary increases voter frustration at the polls. It disenfranchises voters; it doesn't engage them in the process.

Voters who value their privacy and shun labels and we believe that's most Alaskans detest having to enter a polling place and declare which party's ballot they will be choosing. It's almost like telling everyone in the polling place who you'll be voting for. There's nothing very secret about it.

A closed primary system may help the state's biggest political party, but it hurts voters. It does nothing to interest or involve people in the political system. Worst of all, it's a means to give the biggest political party more power while taking away power from the people. Is that really what the Republican Party wants to accomplish?

The bottom line should be this: If parties insist that their right to keep voters of different political persuasions from choosing their candidates in primary elections supersedes voters' rights of political association, then the state should stop paying for primary elections and let the parties choose whoever they will, however they will. It would be cheaper and less frustrating for everyone especially in these tight budget times.

Unfortunately, it won't make for better government. And that should be the goal of any political process.

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