Alaska Democrats question state candidacy law

JUNEAU — Alaska Democratic party leaders have approved allowing candidates not affiliated with a political party to run in the Democratic primary.

In a letter to state election officials provided by the party late Tuesday afternoon, party chair Casey Steinau said that Democrats believe a state law requiring a candidate seeking a party’s nomination to be a registered voter of that party to be unconstitutional and unenforceable.

A memo prepared for the party by an attorney with a Washington, D.C., firm concluded that a political party’s freedom of association is likely to be found to include the right to allow non-affiliated candidates to seek that party’s nomination and that state law prohibiting that is likely to be held unconstitutional. The firm is Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock.

Unaffiliated candidates currently can run for office by petition and gathering signatures. In a release, Steinau said Democrats want their party to be as inclusive as possible. This also would give voters more choices in the primary, she said.

Party spokesman Jake Hamburg said the party will ask the state Division of Elections to implement the change for this year’s elections. He said it would be a pilot program because party bylaws must be approved every two years and this is year two of a two-year cycle.

A message was left Tuesday with the director of the Division of Elections.

The Democratic party’s central committee approved the change during a weekend meeting.

Currently, only one of the state’s legislators, Rep. Dan Ortiz of Ketchikan, is unaffiliated with a party. He caucuses with minority House Democrats.

In 2014, when he was running for governor, Bill Walker changed his party affiliation from Republican to undeclared in joining forces with Democrat Byron Mallott. Mallott abandoned his own gubernatorial bid to be Walker’s running mate. The ticket was supported by the Democratic party. Walker and Mallott won.

Unaffiliated candidates — those identified as undeclared or nonpartisan — comprise the largest voting bloc in the state. Alaska’s Republican party has nearly twice the number of registered voters as Democrats, according to Division of Elections statistics.

The Democrats say that it’s been with support from independents that Democrats have won elections.

Hamburg said there are independents who share the party’s values but don’t necessarily want to check a box identifying themselves as Democrats. The proposed change would allow independents to run in a Democratic primary while retaining their status as unaffiliated, he said.

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