Alaska state judge considers fine against backers of ranked choice repeal measure

a courthouse
The Boney Courthouse in downtown Anchorage, across the street from the larger Nesbett Courthouse, holds the Alaska Supreme Court chambers. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

An Anchorage Superior Court judge will decide by the end of the month whether to uphold a significant fine levied by Alaska’s campaign finance regulators against backers of a petition seeking to roll back the state’s election laws.

The Alaska Public Offices Commission, the state agency involved in campaign finance regulation, fined petition supporters more than $90,000 after concluding they had illegally funneled money through a church in Washington state.

RELATED: Alaska campaign finance watchdog hits ranked choice voting foes with nearly $95K in fines

The supporters appealed the decision in Anchorage Superior Court, but opponents of the petition cross-appealed, saying the fine was too small and that other penalties should have applied.

The result was a complicated Goldilocks-like oral argument on Friday in which attorneys asked Judge Laura Hartz to decide whether the fine was too much, too little, or just right, and whether further action is needed.

Hartz said at the end of the hearing that she intends to issue a decision by June 21, though it may not be until the following Monday.

That deadline would allow the Alaska Supreme Court to consider the issue before the November election, when voters will be asked whether they want to preserve or repeal the elections system installed in a 2020 ballot measure.

That system places all candidates for a particular office into an open primary election in August, and the top four vote-getters advance to a ranked choice election in November. A separate provision requires political groups to disclose the “true source” of money they give to candidates.

Former attorney general Kevin Clarkson is representing supporters of the repeal initiative, which include Alaskans for Honest Elections, the Ranked Choice Education Association, Arthur Mathias and Wellspring Ministries.

In written and verbal arguments, he said that a state law prohibiting campaign contributions in someone else’s name doesn’t apply to ballot initiatives, and that no fine should be issued.

If the court does believe that the law applies, he said, the First Amendment would prohibit any law that forbids someone from giving money to a political cause under someone else’s name.

“Ballot petition circulation constitutes core political speech,” Clarkson wrote in a brief arguing his case.

He also argued that campaign regulators made mistakes when they levied fines against Mathias, claiming they penalized him twice.

Attorney Samuel Gottstein argued in court on behalf of Alaskans for Better Elections, which is opposing the repeal initiative. 

Alaskans for Better Elections also was the group behind the successful 2020 ballot initiative that installed the current elections system.

“I think it is very important that it is said that there is no constitutional right for unlimited anonymous or fictitious contributions to organizations supporting ballot initiatives,” he said in arguments on Friday. 

In written and oral arguments, Gottstein has said that state regulators were correct in applying state limits to the proposed repeal ballot measure, but that they erred on the amount of the fine.

Regulators should have applied a “stacking penalty” and increased the maximum allowed fine before applying a deduction awarded to people who break campaign finance law but are inexperienced.

The Department of Law, arguing on behalf of the Alaska Public Offices Commission, contended that regulators’ fine should stand and that the law prohibiting donations under another name should apply to ballot initiatives.

Attorney Kate Demarest, representing the state, said Hartz should confirm the commission’s actions as written.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and X.

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