By: Grace Greenberg-Spindler
Creating coalitions between independents and major political parties widens the opportunity for independents to participate in the political process. In Alaska an independent candidate must submit a filing notification and collect petition signatures, the number of which varies by level of office. Additionally, independent candidates are blocked from accessing the tools of state-recognized parties such as the Alaska Democratic Party (“ADR”) and the Alaska Republican Party. Rule AS 15.25.030(a)(16) requires “primary election candidates to be registered members of the party in whose primary they run.”
On February 21, 2017, the ADR challenged the constitutionality of this statute, alleging that it placed an undue burden on the party’s right to associate with the candidate of its choosing. This challenge sought to allow independents to run in the party’s primaries and possibly win the nomination, but also allow the candidate to appear on the ballot without the party’s name. The court accepted that the ADR had a constitutional right to allow independents to run in its primary, but in dicta stated that the ballot design was to be determined by the Alaska director of elections and, furthermore, that the ADR’s proposed ballot design would be “highly misleading to voters”. The Attorney General of the Alaskan Department of Law has yet to decide to appeal the decision.
Allowing independent candidates to run in state-recognized party’s primaries is especially significant considering the abundant number of people in Alaska who register as “Non-Partisan” or “Undeclared”. According to the 2017 report by the Independent Voter Project, 54% of registered voters in Alaska are unaffiliated with a political party. Alaska also has a history of successful independent candidates running for governor, such as Walter Hickel in 1968 and 1990 and Bill Walker in 2014.
Bill Walker is currently seeking re-election in the 2018 gubernatorial race and the court’s decision in this case may allow Walker to circumvent the requirement to gather some 3,200 signatures to be placed on the ballot. However, even if Walker does not decide to run in the Democratic primary, the decision allows state-recognized parties the opportunity to appeal to the wider non-partisan voter base in Alaska by running independents sympathetic to each party’s platform.
In making its decision to allow independents to run in state-recognized political party’s primaries, the court considered the ripeness of the case, whether the ADR had standing, and the constitutionality of the statute. The case was previously dismissed because the party had not formally adopted a rule to allow independents to run in its primary. Thus, the case was not ripe for a judicial decision. However, ADR officially amended its bylaws in 2016 to allow non-affiliated candidates to run in its primary.
The court also decided that there was standing for political parties injured by rules that prohibited candidates from running in those party’s primaries. The standard for standing in Alaska requires the party show an “identifiable trifle” of harm and that it have a “direct interest in the outcome of the litigation”. While this was an issue of state election law, the court decided that the ADR had essentially the same level of standing as the Republican Party did in the federal case, Tashjian v. Republican Party of Connecticut, which challenged a rule that prohibited the Republican Party from opening its primary to independent voters.
The court applied the Green Party of Alaska test to determine the constitutionality of AS 15.25.030(a)(16). First, the court determined that the ADR had a constitutionally protected right of association, because a political party possesses the same right to associate with the candidates of its choosing as it does to participate with the voters of its choosing. Second, the court determined the character and damage to the ADR’s associational right was severe. The state statute affected the political party’s associational right to make decisions about internal affairs that “impact a political party’s internal structure, governance, and policy-making.” Lastly, the court determined that the state’s stated interest were not justified to impose the harm and that the statute did not advance those interests. Thus, the statute was unconstitutional.