Here’s how Alaska’s ballots were redesigned to handle the Democratic Party’s open primaries

The Alaska Division of Elections released its certified general election ballots today, revealing a redesign to handle the Alaska Democratic Party’s newly opened primaries.

The new ballots feature the party affiliation of any candidate who reached the general election through a primary, regardless of whether they made it through the Alaska Democratic Party’s primary or the primary of another party. The Alaska Democratic Party successfully challenged a state law requiring a party’s nominees to be registered with that party, opening the doors for nonpartisan and undeclared candidates to participate in its primaries.

Seven such candidates, including congressional candidate Alyse Galvin and Republican-turned-independent Rep. Paul Seaton, took advantage of the new rule.

The result of the redesign is a party affiliation code next to every candidate’s name who reached the general election ballot through a party’s primary. The 2016 ballot simply put “Democrat” next to a candidate’s name. It will now say “Alaska Democratic Party Nominee.”

For example, in House District 31 where Seaton is seeking re-election as a registered nonpartisan nominee of the Alaska Democratic Party after winning as a Republican in 2016, the ballot now looks like this:

The ballots also now come with a legend at the top of the ballot to help voters decipher the party affiliation codes. Again, here’s the example from House District 31:

Why and why it matters

The design of the ballots under the newly opened primaries was one of the main issues at play during the Democratic Party’s lawsuit with the state. The state fought against opening the primaries to independents, arguing that it would confuse voters at the ballot. The state raised the issue with the courts, seeking some guidance on what would be an acceptable design, but the court largely deferred on the issue.

The full opinion, which was released in late August, explained the issue and once again downplayed the state’s concern:

“The state appears to concede that the primary election ballot can be redesigned, but it is unsatisfied with the resulting general election ballot. The state argues that the possible descriptors for a candidate’s party affiliation–such as ‘nonpartisan,’ ‘undeclared,’ ‘non-affiliated,’ or ‘independent’–are by definition inaccurate, and that whichever word is chosen will cause voter confusion or deception,” the court summarized. “But we believe the state’s concerns underestimate the Division of Elections and Alaska voters’ common sense.”

The goal of the opened primaries is for the Alaska Democratic Party to field competitive candidates in more districts, following the recent success of moderate independents in generally Republican districts. For those candidates, the primary system is also an easier path to the general election ballot because they’d otherwise need to collect signatures and file a nominating petition.

The design of the ballot will likely play a part in whether or not the bid is successful as varying design suggestions ranged from omitting a mention of the Democratic Party altogether to omitting any reference to the candidate’s independent status.

No independent incumbents other than Seaton took their chances with the Democratic Party’s primaries.

The Division of Elections seem to have struck a middle ground here by including both the party affiliation of the candidate and the fact they were nominated by a particular party. The extension of the redesign beyond just the Alaska Democratic Party is fair and also lays the groundwork for other parties to follow the Democratic Party if they so choose.

“The ballot needs to be as clear, simple and fair as possible so that voters can make informed choices they are confident in when they go to vote,” said State Elections Director Josie Bahnke in a prepared statement. “We’re committed to making the process as easy to understand as we can.”

Alaska has been held up as a leading state for independent candidates after having elected independent Gov. Bill Walker and two independent legislators. Alaska’s highest party affiliation belongs to undeclared voters, who make up 42 percent of Alaska’s voters, though that number is particularly high because Alaska’s automatic voter registration system defaults to undeclared for all new voters.

The general election is Nov. 6. The final day to register to vote to participate in the election is Oct. 7.

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