Dems take another shot at revising state primary

Task force plan for 'modified blanket' primary revived

Posted: Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Democratic legislators want to revisit the state's new system for the primary election, which otherwise will require six separate ballots.

The minority leaders, Rep. Ethan Berkowitz and Sen. Johnny Ellis, both of Anchorage, have reintroduced the bill for a "modified blanket primary" that was recommended by a task force last year.

Some change in the primary election was required because the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 struck down the previous blanket primary system used by California, Washington and Alaska. Under that system, any voter, using a single ballot, could spread votes among candidates of different parties for different offices.

The court ruled that it's an unconstitutional infringement on freedom of association to force parties to accept the votes of members of other parties in choosing candidates for the general election. As a result, with the Republican Party of Alaska already on record as wanting its primary closed to registered voters of other parties, the Alaska law was immediately invalidated.

Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, who oversees elections, issued emergency regulations for the 2000 primary election creating a two-ballot system. One ballot was available to Republicans and independents to select Republican candidates for the general election. The other, available to all voters, listed all non-Republican candidates. The turnout, about 16 percent, was a record low.

The regulations lapsed with the 2000 primary, and Ulmer convened a task force made up mostly of former lieutenant governors and attorneys general, both Democrats and Republicans.

They unanimously recommended preserving the blanket primary as much as possible, allowing an open ballot for voters registered as nonpartisan or undeclared, deleting only the candidates of parties that wanted their primaries closed.

Meanwhile, the idea was to list as many candidates as possible on the separate, closed ballots. That way, even though Republicans don't want members of other parties helping to choose their candidates, their party members still could vote for Republican Moderates, Greens and others whose parties kept their primaries open.

But the Republican majority in the Legislature decided to close all primaries. Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, let it become law without his signature.

That means there will be six separate ballots this year, one listing candidates from each of the state's major parties.

Nonpartisan and undeclared voters, who make up a slight majority of all registered voters, can choose a ballot of any party that hasn't excluded them. Voters with a party affiliation must choose the ballot of the party they were registered with 30 days before the election. No voter would be able to vote for candidates of more than one party.

Republicans said they believe in building parties and presenting a coherent message, without the confusion brought by crossover voting.

"I'm a Baptist," House State Affairs Chairman John Coghill of North Pole has said. "I don't believe Methodists should select my pastor."

But Democrats say the flexibility of the blanket primary has been the clear choice of Alaska voters.

Ulmer said Tuesday that the proposed partial return to the blanket primary easily could be accomplished this year because the U.S. Justice Department already has "pre-cleared" it.

Bill McAllister can be reached at

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