Republicans stick to closed primary

Legislature 2001

Posted: Thursday, February 08, 2001

The chairman of the Republican Party of Alaska says the party won't back off its demand for a closed primary election, preventing Alaska from returning to its former "blanket" primary in 2002.

Emergency regulations have expired that went into effect last year in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing parties to close their primaries. That puts the issue of designing a new primary system before lawmakers.

Two House committees were told Wednesday that it's later than they think.

Janet Kowalski, director of the state Division of Elections, said she might recommend a delay in the August 2002 primary election if the Legislature doesn't act this year. With the upcoming Census-based redistricting for all legislative boundaries, there is far too much work to do by the June 1, 2002, filing deadline for the primary, if lawmakers wait until next year to design a new system, Kowalski said.

The Supreme Court decision found political parties have a right of association under the Constitution that allows them to close their nominating process for public office to members of their own party.

With Alaska Republicans long on record as favoring a primary exclusively for Republicans and nonpartisan or undeclared voters, that forced Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer to issue emergency regulations last summer creating a two-ballot primary. The Republican ballot could be chosen only by registered Republicans, nonpartisans and undeclared voters, although party registration could be changed at the polls. The open ballot listed all other candidates and was available to all voters, including registered Republicans.

The two-ballot system wasn't popular and was cited as a contributing cause of the 17 percent turnout in the primary, a record low.

Even so, Republican Chairman Randy Ruedrich of Anchorage said the party leadership is committed to having its own primary and has "zero interest" in nominating candidates through the state party convention, one of the alternatives being discussed.

House Judiciary Chairman Norm Rokeberg of Anchorage said he sees little prospect for a blanket primary, even though most of his constituents favor it. "I don't think enough like-minded people share my concern about it. I don't think I can sway the party in that direction."

But Ruedrich contends there's no need for two ballots. He believes the ballot can be designed to list voter registration. Then the state's AccuVote optical scanning machines could be easily programmed to cancel out any errant votes for Republican candidates cast by members of other parties, he said. As no other parties have yet asked for closed primary ballots, that could be the only restriction voters would face.

Up to 76 percent of Alaska voters, based on current registration figures, would have the option of voting for Republican candidates under such a system, Ruedrich said. Meanwhile, Republicans would be protected from a potential crossover vote of Democrats seeking to nominate weak Republican candidates, he contends. Some Republicans saw such mischief in the 1998 nomination of Republican gubernatorial candidate John Lindauer, who went on to a disastrous and scandal-ridden general election campaign.

Lt. Gov. Ulmer, a supporter of the former blanket primary, has named a task force including former lieutenant governors and attorneys general to come up with a recommendation on a new primary system. She told lawmakers she doesn't have a personal preference but would await the task force's recommendation within six weeks.

Among the many options is closing primaries for all six official parties. But Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat, has raised the question of whether Republicans should pay for their own nominating process, whatever it is, since they have invalidated the blanket primary that was open to all.

Ulmer urged lawmakers to start thinking about what they want to do, with the hope that she won't have to issue emergency regulations again in 2002.

"I would hate to do that because I felt I barely had the statutory authority to do what I did last time," she said. "You all would probably prefer to set the policy. ... It may be hard to reach consensus, but frankly we have to do it."

"I'm also going to suggest to you this is going to be a pretty contentious issue," Rokeberg told her. There is no consensus within the Republican majority caucus, he said.

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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