Alaska Democrats should be allowed to let independent candidates run in party primaries, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a case with implications for this year's elections.
The court said it was affirming a lower court decision last fall, which found that the state was restricting the Alaska Democratic Party's attempt to appeal to independent voters by not allowing unaffiliated candidates to participate in Democratic primaries.
The state Supreme Court said an opinion explaining its decision would be released later.
Chief Justice Craig Stowers raised doubts with the majority position but stopped short of dissenting.
Alaska Democrats, in an effort to broaden their reach, changed party rules in 2016 to allow politically unaffiliated candidates to run in its primaries.
Anyone, regardless of party affiliation, can already vote in the Democratic primary. Politically unaffiliated, or independent, voters — those labeled as "undeclared" or "nonpartisan" — comprise the largest voting bloc in the state.
The party challenged a state law requiring that primary election candidates be registered members of the party whose nomination they're seeking. Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg in October ruled the law "substantially burdens the Party's associational rights, and the burden is not outweighed by any significant state interests."
The state appealed, arguing in court filings that if a party nominee doesn't have to identify with their nominating party, the system the state uses to regulate political party status and ballot access "will cease to make sense, party labels will be uninformative, and parties will lose coherence."
The high court heard arguments last week. The candidate filing deadline is June 1.
Traditionally, independent candidates have gathered signatures to qualify for the ballot. Such candidates bypass the primaries and go straight to the general election. That option still exists.
At least one candidate plans to run as an independent in a Democratic primary: Alyse Galvin, who is running for the U.S. House. Dimitri Shein and Gregory Jones also plan to seek the party's nomination, as Democrats. The seat is held by Republican Rep. Don Young, who is seeking re-election.
Galvin called the decision a victory for Alaskans who aren't affiliated with a political party. "Alaskans are looking for independent solutions and action from Congress, not partisan gridlock," she wrote in an email.
Gov Bill Walker changed his party affiliation from Republican to undeclared in joining with Democrat Byron Mallott as part of a so-called unity ticket in 2014. The duo won with Democratic support.
In announcing his re-election bid, Walker said the two planned to go the signature-gathering route. Campaign spokeswoman Lindsay Hobson said nothing has changed at this point but that the campaign was reviewing the court's decision.
No Democrats have yet filed with the Division of Elections as candidates for governor.
The Department of Law, in a release, said election officials will be tasked with designing ballots "that clearly and accurately reflect the registration status and nominee status of candidates."
Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said the court's speedy decision will help the Division of Elections better prepare for the August primary.
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