Political consultant David Dittman says Alaska's Aug. 27 primary reminds him a little bit of the old-style Soviet elections.
"Everyone could vote, but there's only one candidate," said Dittman, an Anchorage-based pollster and campaign consultant. "This year, it's been known from the beginning who the likely winners will be."
Incumbents and big-name candidates such as Fran Ulmer, Frank Murkowski, Don Young and Ted Stevens are on the ballot, limiting the number of serious major-party primary battles in statewide races.
But there are a few crowded primary matchups, including the race for the Republican lieutenant governor's nomination and the Alaskan Independence gubernatorial pick.
Aug. 27 also will have a ballot initiative, a measure calling for preferential, or what's called "instant runoff," voting in state and federal elections except the governor's race.
And it will be the first time all Alaskans will have to vote straight-party ballots. Instead of having a ballot showing hopefuls from most or all parties, Alaskans will choose among candidates of the political group they're registered with - Republican, Democratic, Green, Alaskan Independence, Republican Moderate or Libertarian - or pick on election day if they're unaffiliated.
The six-ballot election will make the primary less of a preview of the November general election than in the past. But it still will give Alaskans some sense of where candidates of different parties stand against each other, said Clive Thomas, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Southeast.
"Even though you don't have them next to one another, it essentially is a poll, especially on Ulmer and Murkowski," Thomas said.
Democratic Lt. Gov. Ulmer and Republican U.S. Sen. Murkowski have primary opponents with far less name recognition and campaign funds. Political analysts said the main serious primary challenger is Wayne Anthony Ross, who attracted 16 percent of the statewide vote in the 1998 gubernatorial primary. But polls still show most Republicans back Murkowski, whom GOP leaders courted to run.
"Because this is the Republicans' chance to get their act together after two terms of a Democratic governor, there's an effort to get a strong showing for Murkowski," Thomas said.
Six candidates are battling to represent the Alaskan Independence Party in the governor's race: Don Wright, Samuel Acevedo Fevos Sr., John Wayne Glotfelty, Nels Anderson Jr., Casey Cockerham and Sandy Haldane. Some have name recognition from previous election tries, but none have the boom or the bucks to tip the balance in November's general election the way their predecessors did, said Brian O'Donoghue, a longtime Alaska political reporter who teaches journalism at the University of Fairbanks.
"None of these folks amount to a Vogler and none of these folks amount to a Coghill or a Hickel," O'Donoghue said. Party leader Joe Vogler won 5 percent of the governor's vote in 1986; Walter Hickel won the race in '90; and Jack Coghill garnered 13 percent in '94.
The Green, Republican Moderate and Libertarian candidates have no gubernatorial primary challengers this year.
The primary battle with the most serious competition is the five-way Republican race for lieutenant governor.
Pollster Dittman said Anchorage Sen. Loren Leman and former House Speaker Gail Phillips of Homer appear to be in the lead with around 20 percent of the vote each. He said the winner may be decided by the number of partyless voters joining party regulars filling in the GOP ballot.
"If it's mostly Republican voters Leman will do better, but if some of the nonpartisan or undeclared voters are there, Gail will do better," he predicted.
The candidate with the most signs around Juneau is Wrangell Sen. Robin Taylor, who became the GOP standard-bearer in the 1998 governor's race after primary winner John Lindauer was found to have campaign-finance irregularities. And Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin is getting more attention after winning an endorsement from former Anchorage Mayor Tom Fink, something close to an endorsement from Ross, and running anti-Ulmer campaign ads in GOP-heavy districts in Southcentral Alaska.
"She has that newcomer-fresh-slate feeling and yet she's going into it with a fairly impressive track record of delivering her promises in Wasilla and being a fairly outgoing person," O'Donoghue said. "Her position as mayor in Wasilla has a lot of visibility attached to it that might not be apparent in Southeast."
The race's balance could change before election day because polls show nearly 45 percent of the voters undecided, Dittman said. But it might not.
"When you have a lot of undecided voters, that doesn't mean they'll all decide," he said. "They just may not vote."
Other parties in the race have only one candidate each running for lieutenant governor.
While candidates will be on ballots formatted differently from any other time in state history, Aug. 27 isn't Alaska's first one-party-only primary. Republicans had their own ballots in the 1992, 1994 and 2000 primaries, with other parties on a separate ballot, due to a series of court rulings. The new six-ballot system is the result of legislation passed after the most recent court action.
The number of people going to the polls on primary day is often low. Since a record high 58 percent turnout in the contentious 1982 primary, the number of voters has steadily dropped. It was 25 percent in 1998 and 17 percent in 2000.
While the new ballot system may confuse some, political observers said the lack of major contests in statewide races will do more to lower voter turnout than the controversial ballot.
"It's not going to change the turnout, but there's going to be a lot of dissatisfaction," O'Donoghue said.
This is the first in a series of Empire articles on the Aug. 27 primary elections. Upcoming articles will look at each race on local and regional ballots.