Alaska Supreme Court allows Democrats to open their primaries to independents, including Gov. Walker

Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott at a fundraiser for the 2018 election. (Photo courtesy Josh Corbin)

The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled a state law requiring participants in a political party’s primary be a registered member of that party is unconstitutional, clearing the way for the Alaska Democratic Party to open its primaries to independent candidates.

The Alaska Democratic Party challenged the law after instituting internal party rules that would allow candidates with undeclared or nonpartisan voter registration to enter its primaries. A Superior Court judge sided with the party last year, and the state appealed the case to the Alaska Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments last week.

Today’s one-page motion upholds the Superior Court ruling and a full opinion will be issued at a later date (the Alaska Supreme Court issues its opinions at 9 a.m. on Fridays).

The deadline for candidates to declare for a primary is June 1.

During oral arguments that were held at Kenai Central High School last week, Alaska Democratic Party attorney Jon Choate argued that the party affiliation requirement was unconstitutional because it artificially limited the candidates a party can endorse. He argued the problem was compounded by the high number of independent voters in Alaska, and argued that the new Democratic primaries would benefit the state.

He also acknowledged that the ruling would make the Alaska Democratic Party and the candidates it supports more likely to win.

The justices seemed generally supportive of the Alaska Democratic Party’s argument during questioning (though it’s perilous to really read too much into their questioning). When the attorney representing the state, Laura Fox, argued that the undoing the law could undermine the party system, potentially allowing candidates who don’t at all agree with the Alaska Democratic Party to win its nomination, Justice Sue Carney shot back.

“Why does the state care?” Carney asked. “This could be a self-destructive policy for the Democratic party, but if they’ve chosen to do that why not let them self-destruct?”

Choate addressed that during his oral arguments.

“Who loses in that? It’s the party, and the party can fix it. The party can say ‘You know what? We tried it and it didn’t work. We’re going to back to only party member can participate as candidates.'” he said. “The electorate doesn’t lose out because ultimately that person who wins the primary and gets elected, they’ve convinced the voters. The state doesn’t lose, the people don’t lose. The victim, if we can call it that, is the party.”

When the state argued that the Democratic Party’s open primary system would also confuse voters, Carney was also there with a poignant question back.

“What if we assume that voters are adults and will inform themselves?” she said.

Why it matters

The ruling has potentially big impacts for the state’s elections, particularly in races where progressive independents and Democrats could potentially split votes in a general election. The ruling allows a closer alliance between independent candidates and the Democratic Party, which has played out in the Alaska House and in the governorship where Gov. Bill Walker merged his independent campaign with Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott’s Democratic campaign in 2014.

With an already-tough reelection effort ahead for Walker, many have been watching to see if he will enter the Democratic primary election in order to stave off a Democratic challenger that would turn the election into a three-way race against a Republican. The Walker campaign doesn’t have any announcement on that front, just yet.

“At this point, we are still evaluating the decision to determine the impact, if any, on the Walker & Mallott campaigns,” a spokeswoman for the campaign said.

More independent candidates are coming forward, including education advocate Alyse Galvin who’s running for Congress as an undeclared candidate but announced plans to enter the Democratic primary. Winning on the primary election ballot is a potentially easier path for an independent candidate to gain access to the general election ballot because they would normally have to gain access through a nominating petition.

What’s undecided

Today’s memo doesn’t settle the issue of what the ballots for the general election or primary election should look like. The state has argued that the nominating party should appear along with the candidate’s affiliation, but the courts have so far shied away from mandating a ballot design.

A statement from the Department of Law recognizes this unanswered problem, and says  the division of elections will design ballots that “clearly and accurately reflect the registration status and nominee status of candidates on both the primary and general election.”

A differing opinion

Chief Justice Craig Stowers issued a four-page memo that outlined a differing opinion on the ruling. He argued that he’s inclined to side with the state’s argument that party registration is a minimal burden on the associational rights of political parties.

“The state points to the ease of party registration in Alaska, and the party’s other means of association, such as endorsement, to show there is no substantial burden,” he wrote. “I am inclined to believe that Alaska’s party affiliation rule does not substantially burden the party’s right.”

He said, however, he’ll wait to see the majority’s full opinion before deciding if he’ll write a full dissent.

“Suffice it to say that I am presently unconvinced with the court’s conclusion that the party affiliation statute is unconstitutional. Thus, for now, I doubt.”

The ruling

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