Court case could open up Alaska Democratic Party’s primaries to independents

A pending legal challenge could allow non-affiliated candidates to run in the Alaska Democratic Party’s primaries, creating an opportunity for the party to further expand and solidify its alliances with independent candidates.

Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg heard oral arguments last week in Alaska Democratic Party vs. the State of Alaska. A decision could come as early as this week, but due to time conflicts it could slip into next week (either way, the case is expected to head to the Alaska Supreme Court).

The case stems from a 2016 change to the Democratic Party rules that would allow undeclared and non-partisan candidates to run in the Alaska Democratic Party’s primary. The state rejected the change, citing a state law that requires primary candidates to be a registered member of the party.

In oral arguments, the Democratic Party Attorney Mark Choate argued that the decision of which candidate a party will put forward in the general election should be left to the party. He also said the situation in Alaska is different than the case law of national elections the state’s relied on.

“We’re talking about the primary election, which is the only way that a recognized political party in Alaska can nominate a candidate to a general election. It’s the only mechanism,” he said. “They don’t have another mechanism for it. That distinction is important.”

The state also argued against the change because there aren’t currently any candidates who are being affected by the law, though Choate said an independent candidate in House District 10 (which is currently held by Republican Rep. David Eastman) is interested in running in the Democratic primary.

Why this case matters

Democrats have had difficulty competing in districts throughout the state. Last year Democrats contested only half of the 10 state Senate seats and didn’t contest eight House seats (and had slim chances in many more). Instead, it’s found success by stepping out of the way of moderate or left-leaning independent candidates to win in traditionally Republican districts.

In the House, Democrats formed a majority coalition with independents and moderate Republicans. A similar situation was hoped for in the Senate with the 2016 Senate candidacy of Vince Beltrami.

Independents who want to run in the Democratic Party would have the benefit of bypassing the nominating petition process to run in state races. Currently, to run without a party affiliation, candidates need between 40 and 160 signatures of voters to run in a Senate or House race. A statewide race needs 3,213 signatures.

The biggest potential beneficiary of the change would be Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott. Though they’ve both announced plans to run as independent candidates through to election day, an entry into the Democratic primary would allow them to block a Democratic ticket in the general election and consolidate votes in what will be a hotly contested race.

Alaska Democratic Party Executive Director Jay Parmley told KTOO that the change isn’t driven by the governor’s race, but a desire to support progressives who want to stay independent.

“It could impact the governor’s race, but that’s not our intention,” he said. “Our support of the governor, or possible support of the governor, could still take many different twists and turns. But this is just one avenue that may be available.”

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