Story last updated at 1:55 p.m. Thursday, July 18, 2002

Primary election features format change
by Hal Spence
Morris News Service-Alaska

Choices will be distinctly limited for voters going to the polls for the Aug. 27 primary election. Not because of any lack of candidates, but in the ways they'll be selected.

There will be six ballots, thanks to a law passed in 2001 by the Alaska Legislature that ended Alaska's blanket primary system. The law precludes crossover voting, which, in the past, allowed Alaska voters to select from among all candidates, regardless of party.

Now, voters will have to select a specific ballot that will limit their choices to candidates in only one party. Which ballot he or she gets to fill out will depend on the voter's current registration, says Janet Kowalski, director of the Alaska Division of Elections.

Those filed as Republicans or Democrats, for instance, would only be allowed to take their party's ballot and vote a straight party ticket.

People registered as undeclared, nonpartisan or "other" get to select which of the six ballots they will cast, but once chosen, they, too, will be restricted to a straight party ticket.

Here's how it breaks down:

Voters registered in one of six parties recognized by the Division of Elections -- the Alaskan Independence Party, Alaskan Libertarian Party, Democratic Party, Green Party of Alaska, Republican Moderate Party and Republican Party -- will be able to vote for only candidates listed on their specific party's ballot. Voters registered undeclared, nonpartisan or "other" may choose the ballot of one specific party only.

The division has launched a voter education program to explain the altered voting procedures. Voters can find a detailed explanation at the division Web site: www.elections.state.ak.us. A voter guide is being mailed to households across Alaska explaining the primary ballot.

The informational campaign alerting voters to the changes appears to be getting through.

"We know it is working because we're getting quite a bit of feedback, mostly from voters who are unhappy," Kowalski said.

Many voters don't like the new system limiting their choices. Callers also expressed disappointment that they would not have the chance to add write-in candidates to any primary ballot, Kowalski said. Write-ins will be permitted in the general election.

Another result of the new system regards a primary ballot initiative that asks voters if they want to enact a bill creating a preferential voting system for state and federal elections. It would allow voters in future elections to rank the candidates, providing a way to select a winner without a costly and time-consuming runoff. The law would apply to all races except that of governor.

Primary voters, however, won't be able to vote on the initiative unless they select a party ballot. Some who have called were angry they would be unable to vote for the initiative without selecting a party ballot, Kowalski said.

The new system has made life a bit more complicated for voters and the Division of Elections.

"It's a very big change," she said. "We've never in our history had a six-ballot primary. Alaskans have enjoyed the ability to vote across party lines for years, and most people were happy with that system."

Voters who have moved since the last election must register in their new districts by July 28 to be eligible to vote in the primary, Kowalski said.

Also, July 28 is the last day for changing party affiliation if a voter wishes to select a different party's ballot. Voters must take advantage of their option to change affiliation by that date.

In the 2000 primary election, when there was a Republican Party ballot and a ballot that included all other candidates, voters could change their affiliation at the polls. But that is no longer the case, Kowalski said.

The voting changes are the result of a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a California case, California Democratic Party v. Jones, in which the high court ruled a state may not require a political party to allow nonparty members to select party candidates in a primary election, Kowalski said. The Alaska Legislature adopted the new law to comply with that ruling.

New election districts drawn up as a result of the 2000 census and the subsequent reapportionment have altered familiar boundaries, often requiring adjusted precincts. Alaska still has 40 Alaska House districts designated by numbers and 20 Senate districts designated by letters, but they look different and have new names.

For instance, the old Senate District R included House District 35, the Delta-Prince William Sound district, and House District 36, called the Rural Interior district.

The new Senate District R includes an entirely new House District 35, the Homer-Seward district, and House District 36, the Kodiak district.

The Web site and the voter guide will explain these changes in more detail.

Voters are being sent new voter cards that include the voter's address, Senate and House district, party affiliation and precinct number. Kowalski said voters should check that the information is current. If they are not sure, they can call their regional elections office.

For Kenai Peninsula voters, that office is in Juneau at (907) 465-3021.

Hal Spence is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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