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Primary rules irk AK voters

Lawyer may sue over inclusion of initiative on state's primary ballots

Posted: Wednesday, July 17, 2002

Alaska's new primary election system has created a dilemma for Ronnie Rosenberg.

Rosenberg counts herself among the majority of Alaska voters who don't belong to any of the state's six recognized political parties. But on Aug. 27 she'll have to ask for one of their ballots in order to weigh in on a nonpartisan citizen's initiative also before voters.

Rosenberg, a retired attorney from Fairbanks who doesn't miss an opportunity to vote, thinks that is not fair. She is considering taking her case to court, she said.

"This is the butterfly ballot revisited," Rosenberg said, referring to the type of ballot used in Florida that critics contended caused voter confusion and tainted the last presidential election.

"My choice is to be nonpartisan. That's always been a recognized choice in our election system for ever and ever," she said. "They're on notice now."

Her argument turns on a person's choice either to join a political party or to remain staunchly independent from any party.

More than 231,000 Alaskans don't declare an allegiance with the Republican, Democratic, Alaskan Independence, Green, Libertarian or Republican Moderate parties. But on Aug. 27 they won't be able to vote unless they ask for a ballot for one of these parties.

The nonpartisan citizens initiative on the ballot is asking whether the state should switch to preferential voting for future elections other than the gubernatorial race.

The initiative would establish the nation's first statewide system of preferential voting, a process more common in local elections and overseas. Preferential voting allows voters to rank candidates for an office in descending order from their first choice to their last choice.

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, then the lowest vote-getter is defeated. Election officials would then count the second-choice votes of voters who picked the losing candidate and add them to the totals of the remaining candidates. The process continues until one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the votes.

It would include state and federal elections but exempt the race for governor.

"We've had ballot measures on marijuana, the right to die, gay and lesbian marriages. You wouldn't be allowed to vote on those without aligning yourself with a political party," Rosenberg said, referring to the new requirement for voters in primaries.

After a U.S. Supreme Court decision on a California case two years ago, the GOP-controlled Alaska Legislature moved quickly to abolish the state's long-standing blanket primary system.

Under that system, all candidates were listed on a ballot and voters were free to cast votes across party lines.

The Republican Party of Alaska objected to that type of primary because it allowed voters from other political parties to help choose the GOP candidate for an office. Republicans have complained that Democrats frequently had worked to pick weaker or less conservative GOP candidates in past blanket primaries.

The Alaska GOP held its own primaries in 1992, 1994 and 2000.

In place of the blanket primary, the Legislature created a new system to limit primaries to party members.

This year, a registered Republican will be limited to a ballot listing only GOP candidates. Similar ballots for Democrats, the Alaskan Independence Party, Green, Republican Moderate and Libertarian will be available.

"A blanket primary really isn't a primary," said Randy Ruedrich, chairman of the Republican Party of Alaska. "It is a preliminary attempt at a general election. What we have now is a primary."

Under the current system, the political parties opened their primaries to the voters registered as nonpartisan, affiliated with groups other than the six recognized parties or are undeclared.

But no one anticipated what would happen if an apolitical citizens initiative was included on the same ballot used by parties to pick their nominees for a general election, said Janet Kowalski, director of the state Division of Elections.

As the election draws closer, the legislative snafu is garnering more complaints from voters who feel excluded from the process, she said.

"What do you do in a state where 51 percent of the people are not affiliated with a political party?" Kowalski said.

Rosenberg wants to vote on that issue without participating in the primary. She wants a seventh ballot to be printed for other registered voters like herself. But Kowalski said her agency cannot do that. The law requires the initiative to be on the first statewide election and the law also requires six ballots, she said.

"Right now we do not have legislative authority for a seventh ballot. Without judicial intervention, there won't be one," Kowalski said.

Rosenberg said she is considering a legal case to delay the election until the state has considered a way to allow registered voters outside the six parties a chance to participate.

"I don't buy that they can't do anything. My resolve is strong," said Rosenberg.



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