ANCHORAGE - An Anchorage judge said Monday he's not ready to decide whether election workers are violating the law by handing out lists of write-in candidates to Alaska voters who request them.
Superior Court Judge Frank A. Pfiffner asked for briefs by Tuesday and said he will rule by 9 a.m. Wednesday in the case brought by the Alaska Democratic Party and joined by the Republican Party of Alaska.
They are seeking a restraining order to stop the Division of Elections from providing lists of write-in candidates, claiming the names will skew voting in favor of the candidates not on the ballot.
"We just want a fair process in the election," said Thomas Daniel, an attorney for the Democrats.
The write-in question is crucial this year as incumbent U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was defeated by Fairbanks attorney Joe Miller in the August GOP primary, mounts a write-in campaign. The Democrat in the race is former Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams.
Early voting has begun around the state.
The division's new policy was defended by a state attorney and a lawyer for the Murkowski campaign, who argued that providing write-in candidates names fits under the agency's mandate to provide assistance to voters.
Daniel said the agency's own regulation bans naming candidates: "Information regarding a write-in candidate may not be discussed, exhibited, or provided at the polling place, or within 200 feet of any entrance to the polling place."
"The law draws a bright line, and we need to respect that line," said Patti Higgins, chairwoman of Alaska Democratic Party. "If they want to change the rules, they should change the regulations, but you have to conduct the election the way we've always done them and you have to comply with the law."
Republican party chairman Randy Ruedrich issued a statement that said every candidate and political party has been operating under one set of rules and it was unfair to change them midstream.
"This hasty decision both threatens the integrity of the election process and the legitimacy of every candidate elected," he said.
The Republican Party attorney, Kenneth Kirk, said providing write-in candidate lists diminishes the advantage gained by candidates who went through the primaries, a process for narrowing the number of candidates. Changing the process at this point, he said, gives an appearance of impropriety in favor of Murkowski.
"All of a sudden, the rules are being changed to advantage her," he said.
But assistant attorney general Margaret Paton-Walsh said the lists are only about voter assistance. A list, Paton-Walsh said, is not advocacy and other states routinely post such information at polling places.
"It's not political advocacy to provide them with information," she said.
She said elections officials anticipated there could be more questions and the potential for an increase in assistance requests.
She and Murkowski attorney Scott Kendall said election officials have a broad mandate to assist voters and the desire of voters in past court cases has trumped state rules.
Pfiffner said he was hesitant to immediately grant a restraining order, agreeing with Paton-Walsh that it would create two classes of votes in this election cycle.
He gave attorneys for the state and Murkowski campaign until noon Tuesday to file paperwork backing up their arguments and the political parties until the end of business Tuesday to respond.