How–and why–to watch Alaska Supreme Court arguments over the Democrats’ primaries

(Photo by the Alaska Division of Elections)

A key case for Alaska’s 2018 elections and beyond will appear in front of the Alaska Supreme Court tomorrow in State of Alaska v. Alaska Democratic Party, the final stage of the Democrats’ attempt to open their primaries to independent candidates.

The case is a challenge to a state law that requires participants in a party’s primary be registered with that party. A Superior Court judge sided with the Democrats in a ruling last year and the state has since appealed the case to the Alaska Supreme Court. The oral arguments are scheduled to begin at 9:50 a.m. on Thursday, March 29.

Why it matters

The outcome could have significant impacts for elections moving forward by giving progressive independents an easier path to the ballot as well as eliminating potential vote-splitting between progressive independents and Democrats in the general election.

Currently, candidates without a state-recognized political party must collect signatures through a nominating petition to appear on the ballot. Recognized political parties in Alaska are the Alaska Democratic Party, the Alaska Republican Party, the Alaska Libertarian Party and the Alaskan Independence Party. They each have guaranteed spots on a general election ballot, and there’s no minimum vote threshold for their candidates.

The impact for elections could be that the Democratic party and Democrat-friendly independent candidates could become more competitive in moderate or conservative districts where voters might be turned off by the Alaska Democratic Party label. Some independent candidates have already signaled they would like to take advantage of this allowance, while there are other races where this could have a significant impact on the race (independent Gov. Bill Walker’s reelection would be one of them).

How to watch

Gavel Alaska provides live video coverage of the Alaska Supreme Court arguments and a live video stream is available on the website. We’ve embedded the video from that site below:

Background on the case

The Superior Court sided with the Alaska Democratic Party last year, finding the state’s requirement that participants in a party’s primary hold that party’s affiliation was an undue restriction on a party’s associational rights. If that ruling stands, any political party will be able to open their primaries to any candidates as they see fit. The Alaska Democratic Party plans to open its primaries to candidates with undeclared or nonpartisan party registration (its internal rules already permit this).

The state argued in defense of the law, saying that registration is not a significant burden for any candidate and argued that allowing the Democrats to hold open primaries would be confusing to voters.

What was left unresolved from the case is just how the general election ballots should list independents who win the nomination of the Democratic party. The party’s case that the candidates should be listed without reference to the party was rejected by the Superior Court judge, but no specific design was mandated. The state’s ballot suggestion would designate the candidate as an undeclared or nonpartisan candidate nominated by the party.

Key arguments in the Supreme Court Case

Both the state and the Alaska Democratic Party have filed legal briefings on the case, which can be found on the court’s website.

The state’s case

The state is once again arguing that state law requiring a primary election participant have the same registration as that primary is not an undue burden on either the party or the candidate’s associational rights.

“Not only does the party affiliation rule not restrict anyones’ ballot access, but it does also not restrict political parties from promoting their ideas and associating with voters and candidates in almost every conceivable way. The only thing the party affiliation rule prevents is a candidate competing for a party’s slot on the general election ballot while affirmatively refusing to affiliate with the party,” the state’s briefing argues. “This sensible rule is barely a restriction at all, and does not substantially burden associational rights.”

It argues that the Democratic Party’s case that its rights are being infringed by the rule is a “end-run around the state’s system of two distinct routes to the general election ballot (the nominating petition and the primaries of state-recognized parties)”

The state’s case also notes that registration in Alaska is particularly permissive already and there’s no required length of party affiliation necessary to enter a primary. Candidates can register with a party the same day they sign up for a primary.

The state goes on to argue that registration requirement is necessary to protect state interests in maintaining an orderly political system.

“The party affiliation rule serves at least three compelling state interests: First, it is an integral part of the State’s system for ensuring that candidates and political parties enjoy sufficient public support before gaining ballot access. Second, it helps prevent voter confusion and deception. Third, it furthers the State’s interest in the stability of its political system.”

The Alaska Democratic Party’s case

The Alaska Democratic Party argues that political parties have a fundamental right to associate with whatever candidate they choose and the state’s limitations are an unconstitutional intrusion into internal party politics. A key piece of this argument is that a majority of Alaska voters fall into the undeclared or nonpartisan categories and not allowing them to participate in primaries unfairly skews state politics.

“The restriction has significant consequences,” the Alaska Democratic Party argues. “The majority of Alaska’s voters are prohibited from candidacy in the party’s primary election unless they change their decision not to formally register as a member of a political party. This purely associational restriction narrows the pool of candidates that may seek the party’s nomination, reduces the choices available to the party’s primary voters, alters the resulting ideological cast of the party’s nominees and limits the party’s ability to nominate candidates that may have broader appeal to the majority-independent electorate.”

The final piece of that argument is particularly relevant to today’s political world as the Democrats have recently found successful alliances with independents to win representation in the governor’s office (with the election of independent Gov. Bill Walker and Democratic Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott) and the House (with the election of progressive independent candidates).

The Democrats go on to challenge the state’s argument that the registration rule is necessary to protect state interests in a stable and clear political system by arguing that its examples are in the abstract and doesn’t give enough credit to both the independence of all voters regardless of party affiliation and the ability of voters to be informed about their vote.

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