After last night’s Lower 48 victories, the Alaska Democrats’ open primary case has renewed importance

Voters fill Centennial Hall's Sheffield Ballroom during the Juneau Democratic Caucus on Saturday, March 26, 2016 as Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, speaks from the podium as the chairman of the event. (Photo by James Brooks/Creative Commons)

The state of Alaska announced on Friday that it will appeal a ruling that would allow independent candidates run in the Alaska Democratic Party’s primaries, a case that could have new importance if the outcome of Virginia’s legislative races on Tuesday night can be replicated in Alaska.

Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg ruled in favor of the Alaska Democratic Party in October, finding political parties have the constitutional right to open primaries to whatever candidates it sees fit. He specifically found that a state law requiring primary candidates to be registered members of the party is an unconstitutional violation of the free speech.

“We don’t agree with the superior court that the party membership requirement in state statute places an unconstitutional burden on political parties,” Attorney General Lindemuth said in a prepared statement provided to the Juneau Empire.

The Empire reports the state is seeking an expedited review of the case, which is important given the June 1, 2018 deadline for candidates to file for primaries.

Why it matters

If allowed to proceed with independent-friendly primaries, Democrats could field a wider slate of candidates in next year’s elections and beyond. It’s meaningful because progressive-leaning independent candidates have found success in Republican-leaning districts where historically Democrats have found little.

The move also gives future independent candidates the opportunity to run in more focused races without a Democrat to split votes (it was a hotly debated issue between the independent and Democratic candidates in 2016 three-way race against North Pole Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson though it ultimately wasn’t a factor).

Having a wider, more competitive slate of candidates for the 2018 election could help Democrats ride the wave seen in Tuesday’s Lower 48 elections.

2018 implications

Last night’s election results were not only good for Democrats in the headline race of the night for Virginia governor, but it showed a big impact for the the state’s legislative races. Republicans went into the night with a 66-member supermajority in the Virginia House of Delegates and left the night unsure if they’d still maintain the majority they’ve held since 2000.

As of the most current count, Democrats are expected to pick up a whopping 14 seats with another five that are currently too close to call. Among those already-decided races is the defeat of the GOP’s self-described “chief homophobe” by Virginia’s first openly transgender person to win elective office.

Some Republican political organizers privately worried in 2016 about the impact of having a deeply unpopular presidential candidate at the top of the ticket. Though the connection between Trump and Alaska’s legislative races is far from solid, the 2016 elections saw enough changes that Democrats seized control of the House through a coalition with independents and moderate Republicans. 2018 could be a wave.

Pump the brakes

Though Tuesday’s election results showed a massive swing in favor of Democrats in legislative races, an analysis by the New York Times shows it wasn’t statewide. Some districts that voted Republican in 2016 doubled down on Tuesday night, with the margin shifting further in the GOP’s favor than compared to 2016.

And, as any Alaskan will tell you, Alaska is not the Lower 48 and it’s certainly not Virginia.

Virginia had the clearly defined governor’s race between Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and conservative Trump-wannabe Ed Gillespie. As it’s shaping up, Alaska’s race for governor is looking far more muddy (though an open Democratic primary could certainly tighten the field).

The Democratic winners in Virginia’s races also ran on local issues, like traffic congestion, while Alaska’s political landscape is a mess with bipartisan divides over the budget, crime and the permanent fund. No one party stands to dominate any one of those issues. Like last year, 2018 could prove to be a good year for voting record-free newcomers.

It’s also too early to tell just what impact Trump’s pro-development policies might have on next year’s race and whether the promise of opening the 1002 section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, among other policy changes, would be enough to counteract the groundswell of Democratic enthusiasm seen on Tuesday.

Other issues about the open primary case

Another point in the state’s appeal is that Pallenberg never addressed the issue of what the ballot would look like under his ruling, an issue that Pallenberg said in his ruling that he wasn’t asked to address.

Pallenberg didn’t mandate a specific ballot design in his ruling, writing “the court has no reason to believe that the director of elections will be unable to design a ballot which will both implement the Democratic Party rule and also allow voters to make fully informed decisions.”

The Juneau Empire also included this key point about Pallenberg’s judicial track record:

According to an analysis conducted last year by the Alaska Judicial Council, Pallenberg’s decisions are rarely overturned on appeal. He has a 99 percent affirmation rate on criminal cases and a 77 percent affirmation rate for civil cases. (ADP v. State is a civil case.)

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