Alaska Democrats seek chance for independents to run in party primaries

The Alaska Democratic Party voted last year to change its rules to allow independents to run for its nomination for office. But state officials blocked the move.

Listen now

Now both sides are in court over the issue.

The proposed change would allow the party to support a candidate without having the word “Democratic” appear on the ballot by the candidate’s name.

Alaska Democratic Party Executive Director Jay Parmley said there have been multiple times when local Democrats endorsed independents when there were no Democratic candidates.

“We believe that there are certain circumstances where there are candidates who would like the Democratic Party’s support, but they would like to remain as an independent,” he said. “They are progressive.”

Two examples are independent state representatives Jason Grenn of Anchorage and Daniel Ortiz of Ketchikan. Independent Margaret Stock expressed an interest in seeking the Democratic nomination last year for U.S. Senate.

Alaska has nearly four times as many voters registered as nonpartisan (84,472) or undeclared (190,374) combined as it does Democrats (76,208).

State law currently requires that candidates for political parties’ nominations be registered members of the parties. State officials cited the law in blocking the change to Democratic Party rules.

If the Democrats are successful in court, it would open up the possibility that independent Gov. Bill Walker could run in the Democratic primary. Parmley said that the governor’s race is not why the party made the change.

“It could impact the governor’s race, but that’s not our intention,” he said. “Our support of the governor, or possible support of the governor, could still take many different twists and turns. But this is just one avenue that may be available.”

Walker said Aug. 21 that he and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott plan to bypass the primary as independents.

Walker didn’t have to run against a Democrat in 2014 because Mallott joined his ticket after winning the Democratic nomination for governor.

“As we know, sometimes things change during an election process,” Walker said. “We certainly saw that last time. We typically don’t say never to anything, quite honestly. But this is the path that we have chosen.”

In court, the Democrats argue that a state law that controls who can run for a party nomination is unconstitutional, because political parties have the right to choose with whom they associate.

Alaska Assistant Attorney General Libby Bakalar serves as the co-counsel for the state. She said there are multiple reasons why the state government opposes the Democrats’ making the change.

Bakalar pointed out that there aren’t any current independent candidates who have said they plan to run for Democratic nominations.

In other words, the state argues no one has legal standing.

Lawyers for the state have argued that the state has an interest in who is eligible to run for political parties’ nominations.

The state provides certain benefits to political party candidates, such as automatically giving nominees’ access to the ballot.

Bakalar said it’s the state’s job to stand up for the law.

“What we have a problem with is that the Democratic Party’s rule is now clashing with a state statute,” she said.

One group on the sidelines that’s watching the court battle with interest is the Alaska Republican Party.

Party Chairman Tuckerman Babcock said the Democrats want to run as independents to win Republican-leaning areas.

“Everywhere else in the country, Democrats are proud to run as Democrats and not saying, ‘Oh how can we slip one by the voters and pretend to be an independent when we know we’re really Democrats?’” Babcock said.

Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg will hear oral arguments in the case Sept. 21 in Juneau.