Supreme Court ruling could affect Alaska primaries

Posted: Monday, June 26, 2000

WASHINGTON -- Primaries that allow voters to cast their ballots for any candidate, regardless of party, violate the rights of state political parties, the Supreme Court ruled Monday in throwing out California's primary system.

California's ``blanket primary'' system, which the justices overturned on a 7-2 ruling, is similar to laws in Alaska, Washington and to some extent, Louisiana.

The decision avoided deciding the validity of the more common open primary system used in another 20 states.

Allowing nonparty members to help choose a political party's nominees in the manner used by California violates parties' free-association rights under the Constitution's First Amendment, the justices said.

Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia said California was ``forcing political parties to associate with those who do not share their beliefs. And it has done this at the crucial juncture at which party members traditionally find their collective voice and select their spokesman.''

``The burden (California's voting system) places on (the political parties') rights of political association is both severe and unnecessary,'' Scalia wrote.

Nick Tobey, leader of a California group supporting the blanket primary, said he was disappointed in the ruling but noted that polls show strong public support for the idea. He said he and other supporters will try again by interpreting the court's opinion and reviewing what has been found to work in other states.

Scalia said states could hold a nonpartisan blanket primary, in which voters can choose any candidate regardless of affiliation, and the top two vote-getters move on to the general election. The system he described would be similar to Louisiana's system.

Under such a voting plan, Scalia said, ``primary voters are not choosing a party's nominee'' and therefore political parties' rights of free association are not harmed.

His opinion was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer.

Dissenting were Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Four California political parties, including the Democrats and Republicans, challenged the blanket primary system overwhelmingly approved by the state's voters in 1996. Until then, Californians could vote only in their own party's primary.

In a blanket primary, everyone receives the same ballot and someone could vote, for example, to nominate a Republican candidate for governor, a Democrat for senator and a Libertarian for state attorney general.

Washington state's blanket primary system dates back to 1935, and Alaska has used a similar system for most years since 1947. In Louisiana's blanket primary system, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, go on to a runoff election.

Blanket-primary supporters in California said the system would encourage voter turnout and lead to the nomination of more moderate candidates. But the four parties said allowing nonparty members to vote would harm their members' ability to choose candidates that best represent their views.

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