Primary protest: Two parties sue to block new closed-ballot system

Posted: Thursday, August 29, 2002

Green and Republican Moderate party officials filed a lawsuit today in an attempt to throw out the closed-primary system that irked so many voters on election day.

"We hope the court will recognize the right to association has been violated and the law violated the Constitution," said Jim Sykes, election issues specialist for the Green Party of Alaska and the group's U.S. Senate candidate.

Officials of the 4,647-member Green Party and 2,896-member Republican Moderate Party filed the suit at the Anchorage District Courthouse late this morning. The legal action, against the state Division of Elections, asks that the law mandating the closed-primary system be declared unconstitutional.

"There's probably half a dozen angles where the voters' rights have been violated by this primary," Sykes said today.

The law, passed in 2001 by the Republican-controlled Legislature, required all six of the state's recognized parties to have separate ballots. Republicans had a closed ballot in the 2000 primary based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a California case, but other parties were allowed to be on a joint, five-party ballot open to all voters. Sykes said the suit does not challenge the right of Republicans or any other party to close their own primary.

Elections officials have a policy of not commenting on litigation, said Division Director Janet Kowalski. But she said she wasn't surprised a suit was filed, given the number of complaints received about the primary. She said the state Department of Law would review any questions about the measure's constitutionality.

State lawyers reviewed the bill and determined it would stand up in court. Assistant Attorney General Sarah Felix today said the California Supreme Court case meant the end to the old open primary.

"We had to do something. The Legislature had to do a new law," Felix said. "We did review it and I think it is constitutional."

Elections officials predicted the closed primary would irritate many voters, but said they had no choice but to enforce the law. And the closed primary was one of the reasons turnout was low, probably about 21 percent, said Kowalski.

Voters from around the state expressed distaste for the closed primary, according to poll workers. In one case, Kowalski said, the situation became so intense poll workers called Alaska State Troopers about an irate voter. Kowalski would not identify the polling place.

Republican Moderate Party Chairman Ray Metcalfe said the closed primary was an attack on the state's four smaller parties aimed at luring them to the Democratic and Republican folds.

Sykes also called the primary an attack on undeclared and nonpartisan voters, who make up more than half the electorate.

"Alaskans should be outraged at the way the two large parties attempt to manipulate the election process to their own interests even though more people are not registered to any political party than all the others put together," he said.

Republicans disagreed, holding a news conference Wednesday in part to laud the new primary system.

"Alaskans who have voted in other states have found this to be a return to normalcy rather than something that is distressing," said Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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