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Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer said this week she expects a colorful discussion about how to handle Alaskas state primary election in the future.
But for now theres a change in format at the polls. And Ulmer is trying to warn voters they will have to make a choice between two ballots in Tuesdays election for state House seats and the congressional race.
Recently, Alaska has used a blanket primary ballot, which means all candidates, regardless of party, have been listed together. And regardless of their own party affiliation, voters could choose candidates of any party.
But a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down Californias blanket primary. The court said that by forcing a political party to affiliate with voters of other parties that is, allowing outsiders to help choose the partys nominees the blanket primary would violate the partys First Amendment right to freedom of association.
As a result of that decision, blanket primaries in Washington state and Alaska also are affected.
Because Alaskas Republican Party demanded a separate ballot, threatening a lawsuit otherwise, Ulmer said she had no choice but to come up with emergency regulations for Tuesdays election, which she did June 30. A lawsuit was filed opposing the two-ballot approach, but the Alaska Supreme Court rejected the argument by Michael OCallaghan of Anchorage that Ulmer lacked authority to change election rules on her own.
Despite the publicity, Ulmer said she expects confused voters and longer lines at the polls. Extra training of election officials was done as a result of the Supreme Court ruling and the Division of Elections took out advertisements in the states three largest newspapers to explain the new procedure.
So for now, it works like this: Voters who register as Republican or as undeclared or non-partisan will receive a ballot on which only Republicans are listed. Under current registrations, about 75 percent of Alaska voters would be eligible to choose the Republican ballot.
Voters already registered as Democrat, Green Party, Alaskan Independents, Republican Moderate and Libertarian must change their party affiliation in order to vote on the Republican ballot. Party affiliation can be changed at the polls.
A second ballot, called the open ballot, will list all non-Republican candidates. Voters who arent registered as Republicans will choose among them.
The new system, a return to the partially closed primary format used in Alaska in 1992 and 1994, is not guaranteed to be in place for the 2002 primary election. The Legislature can implement something different, and thats where Ulmer expects a vigorous debate.
Among the options: The state could have a separate primary ballot for each party, or the state could get out of the nominating business by abolishing the primary and allowing parties to choose their candidates for the general election at party conventions.
If a primary survives, there also could be the question of whether parties should pay for it. Alaska is one of the few states with a unified state elections system, Ulmer said. Cities and counties administer elections in many states, she noted.
Although elections officials are concerned about confusion Tuesday, there might not be that many people to confuse.
In 1998, when there was a gubernatorial contest on the ballot, only 24.6 percent of the states 447,700 registered voters, or 109,906, went to the polls for the primary. That was the worst electoral turnout since the state began keeping track of percentages in 1976.
There are 460,321 registered voters this year. Based on the pace of absentee ballots being sent in by last week, Division of Elections officials werent hopeful of doing a lot better.
Low primary turnouts are becoming endemic, lamented Juneau Sen. Kim Elton, a Democrat, in his bi-weekly newsletter. Perhaps the only silver lining in that dark cloud is that Alaskans who do show up are committed and informed.
Elton is not up for re-election this year.