Should independents be able to run in a Democratic primary?

Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg observes Jon Choate, lawyer for the Alaska Democratic Party, on Sept. 21, 2017. Pallenberg heard oral arguments over whether the party can allow independents to run in party primaries. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO)

A Superior Court judge is weighing how to define who is allowed to run the Alaska Democratic Party primary. The party wants to allow independent candidates to run in the primary without registering as Democrats.

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Judge Philip Pallenberg questioned both sides about the case during oral arguments Thursday.

“What makes this a Democratic primary anymore, when any independent can vote in it and any independent can run in it?” Pallenberg asked Jon Choate, the Democrats’ lawyer. “How is that still a Democratic primary?”

The Democrats already allow any registered voters to cast ballots in the primary. Now they want to allow nonpartisan and undeclared candidates to run in the primary.

State election officials rejected a proposal by the party to change its rules, citing state law.

Choate said the law violates the free speech guarantee in the Alaska Constitution.

“Questions of ideology, as to what constitutes a political party, I think those are best left – especially at the primary level – for the party to decide,” Chaote said.

Assistant Attorney General Margaret Paton-Walsh said the proposed change could allow people who don’t share Democrats’ beliefs to win the primary.

“In any particular primary, you could have more non-Democratic voters voting than Democratic voters,” Paton-Walsh said. “And if they choose a candidate who is also unassociated with the party, you have a primary that is really not a Democratic primary at all.”

If the Democratic party wins the case, it could provide political benefits. Undeclared, nonaffiliated and Republican voters all outnumber registered Democrats.

The case could also have an effect in next year’s election. Gov. Bill Walker is running for re-election as an independent and has said he isn’t planning to run in a primary. But it would be an option for him if the Democrats win in court.

Proposed Democratic party rules say that winning independent primary candidates would appear on the general election ballot without the party’s name. But state officials design the ballot. If the party wins in court, the state could still require that ballots say that an independent candidate is supported by the Democratic party.

Pallenberg said he’ll try to reach a decision as quickly as he can, possibly as soon as next week.

Andrew Kitchenman is the state government and politics reporter for Alaska Public Media and KTOO in Juneau. Reach him at

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