Alaska Supreme Court hears case on who can and can’t run in party primaries

The Alaska Supreme Court occasionally takes its act on the road, traveling to high schools around the state, giving students a peek at the inner workings of the state’s highest court. Thursday morning, justices were at Kenai Central High School to hear oral arguments in a case about who can run for partisan political office.

Assistant Attorney General Laura Fox getting things started Thursday morning at Kenai Central High School.

“The challenged law says that in order to run for office under a political party’s label, a candidate must adopt a political party’s label,” Fox said.

Students from all over the district came to observe the proceedings, which saw the Alaska Democratic Party pitted against the state over who can be on a primary ballot. Current law says if you want to run in a primary, you have to be registered to the party whose primary you’re running in.

Democrats would like to change that. Mostly because Alaska is a tough place, generally speaking, to run as a Democrat. Opening up the primaries to more people who aren’t affiliated with either party could help Democrats get more people involved and potentially create some tighter races around the state.

“The party affiliation rule represents a policy choice and its entitled to a presumption of constitutionality,” Fox argued. “So the court should not strike it down, even though it touches on associational rights. In the elections context, associational rights are always in play. The state needs to be able to run elections and that means it needs a system with rules and structure and some leeway to operate.”

The state is arguing that there are a number of factors that could shrink a party’s pool of candidates. Actually declaring membership in a party is just one of them, and it’s not an unreasonable burden.

Juneau attorney Jon Choate argued on behalf of the Democrats. He said the court’s decision won’t just affect the Democratic Party.

“It affects the 54 percent of voters in Alaska who choose not to register as a member of a political party,” he said. “And it affects Alaskans who live with the decisions made by the officials who are elected through our democratic process.”

There’s a kind of built in question to that argument. Should someone seeking public office have to give up their independent or unaffiliated status and hitch their wagon to a party, just because they like some of what that party has to offer?

“If they don’t want to say, ‘I’m a Democrat or I’m a Republican,’ but they want to work together with them to get elected into office — they can’t do that,” Choate said. “They can’t do that unless they give up their name, unless they give up their identity.”

And it’s on those grounds that Democrats say the current law is unconstitutional. After an hour listening to arguments from both sides and counter arguments from the bench, Homer senior Joshua Wisner said he wasn’t sure how the case would shake out.

“I think I was expecting it to either be more boring or more dramatic,” Wisner said. “It was more just normal people talking to each other, which is, I guess, how the world works. I think I learned a lot about the everyday part of the legal system. ‘Cause I’m learning a lot in government (class) about how it functionally works. But seeing it actually in process is super different.”

Students have been going over the case in class, and heard presentations from local legal minds about it. But even with all that and after hearing arguments, Wisner isn’t sure where the court will land on this one.

“It seemed like Choate was better at speaking, but at the same time, I felt a little more sympathetic toward the Fox argument, just in terms of, like, practicality,” he said. “It’s hard to say what the court will say.”

Whatever the court does eventually say, there will be important consequences for the future of Alaska’s elections.

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