(THIS IS A DEVELOPING STORY)
In a 33-page ruling, an Alaska Superior Court judge has ruled that the Alaska Democratic Party may run candidates in its primary who are not officially aligned with any political party.
In practical terms, this means a non-Democrat could win against a registered Democrat in the Democrats’ primary, and then go on to represent the Democrats in the general election.
For example, if Gov. Bill Walker decides to run in the Democrats’ primary, he might beat Mark Begich, whom many have thought is considering a run. If he won in the Democrats’ primary, he’d have to appear on the General Election ballot as a Democrat, according to the court ruling.
Judge Philip Pallenberg wrote:
“The court’s conclusion that AS 15.25.030(a)(l6) is unconstitutional means that the Democratic Party must be permitted to implement its 2016 rule permitting undeclared or non-partisan candidates to participate as candidates in the Party’s primary election.”
Tuckerman Babcock, chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, said, “I’m delighted to see the court rule in favor of maximum freedom, and the freedom for who votes in their primary and who can run in their primary.”
“This takes away the charade that Rep. Dan Ortiz or Jason Grenn are independents,” he said. “How many times can Democrats pull one over on their voters and force their own candidates out of the race, as they did in 2016?”
The judge acknowledged that allowing nonpartisans and undeclareds to run in the Democrats’ primary would give it a distinct advantage:
“The Party’s decision to have an open primary is apparently motivated by a desire to attract the support of non-affiliated voters for its candidates. More than half of Alaska’s registered voters have selected ‘Non-Partisan’ or ‘Undeclared’ as their political affiliation. This leaves Alaska with one of the country’s highest percentages of unaffiliated voters. Thus there is a significant political advantage gained by a party that can attract non-affiliated voters.”
In 2016, the Alaska Democratic Party opened its primary to non-affiliated candidates and asked the state to consider the constitutionality of the state statute that allows only registered members of a party to run as candidates in that party’s primary.
When the State declined to address the constitutionality of the statute, the Democrats filed suit, but Superior Court Judge Louis Menendez dismissed the case because it was not ripe for decision. The Democrats had not yet formally adopted a rule opening its primary to non-affiliated candidates. A good example of a candidate who may have taken advantage of that approach is Margaret Stock, who was running as a nonpartisan candidate, but who wanted to run in the Democrats’ primary in her 2016 race to unseat Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
The Democrats have since adopted the rule, and the judge’s decision makes it legal, unless the governor decides to challenge the ruling to a higher court.
CLEAR AS MUD
What is unclear is how nonpartisan candidates will get on the Democratic Party primary ballot. Or even how the names will appear.
Judge Pallenberg declined to accept the proposed ballot design of the Democrats. He said the Division of Elections would need to make it clear to voters if persons running on the Democrats ballot were not actually Democrats.
Pallenberg noted that the Democrats’ suggested ballot would serve to trick voters via bait-and-switch tactics.
“Counsel for the Party went on to suggest that, at the general election, each candidate would again be listed by their own party affiliation (or ‘non-partisan’ or ‘undeclared’) without any indication of the party nominating that candidate. If a non-affiliated candidate won the Democratic primary, under this ballot design, a general election voter would not be able to tell from the ballot whether that candidate was the candidate of the Democratic Party, or some other party with a similar rule, or alternatively whether that candidate had qualified for the ballot by petition,” he wrote.
“If the law actually required this ballot design, I would find that such a ballot design created a significant potential to mislead or confuse voters. The State has a legitimate interest in preventing a party from engaging in such a bait and switch.”
Pallenberg continued, “I thus conclude that, if the law permits the Democratic Party to nominate as its candidate a nonaffiliated candidate, AS 15.15.030 requires that the general election ballot must inform voters that such a candidate is the nominee of the Democratic Party.”
He also wrote about the burden on the director of the Division of Elections to “prepare all official ballots to facilitate fairness, simplicity, and clarity in the voting procedure, to reflect most accurately the intent of the voter.”
“Similarly, the court believes the law permits – and likely obligates – the director to make clear to primary election voters which nomination is being sought by a nonaffiliated voter who runs in a party primary. Sufficient care on the director’s behalf will ensure that voters in both the primary and general elections are fully informed about exactly who it is they are voting for.”
The director, of course, is an appointed position by the lieutenant governor, whose hybrid “nonpartisan”-Democrat ticket of Walker-Mallott most benefits from voter confusion.
The current Director of the Division of Election who will be in charge of designed these new ballots is Josie Behnke, who was famously indifferent to the integrity of the election process in the 2016 election in House District 40, where voters were allowed to vote twice — once on the Democrat ballot and once on the Republican ballot — something that is clearly illegal.