State of Alaska v. Alaska Democratic Party

Docket Watch 2018

By Jason Torchinsky

In State of Alaska v. Alaska Democratic Party, the Supreme Court of Alaska affirmed a lower courts ruling finding unconstitutional a statute forbidding independent candidates from seeking a the nomination in a party primary.[1]

As of February 2016, Alaska is second only to Arkansas in the percentage of independent voters, with 54% of registered voters unaffiliated with any political party.[2] In an apparent effort to reach more of these independent voters, the Alaska Democratic Party amended its bylaws to permit candidates not already registered with a political party to vie for that party’s nomination.

The only thing preventing this seemingly innocuous change in party procedure was Alaska Statute § 15.25.030(a)(16). The targeted statute provides that “a member of a political party who seeks to become a candidate of the party in a primary election” must file an affidavit stating, in part, “that the candidate is registered to vote as a member of the political party whose nomination is being sought.”[3] The Alaska Democratic Party brought suit challenging the statute as being in violation of both Article 1 § 5 of the Alaska Constitution and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Superior Court, relying on State v. Green Party of Alaska[4], applied a four part test to determine: if a constitutional right was implicated; the severity of any infringement; and a tailoring analysis to determine if the state’s infringement was justified. In conducting this analysis, the Superior Court relied heavily upon Tashjian v. Republican Party of Connecticut[5] and Timmons v. Twin Cities Area New Party[6]. The court found that political parties in Alaska have an “associational right” to “permit candidates of varying political affiliations to run in its primary.” As such, the statute violated the Alaska and U.S. Constitutions.

The Alaska Supreme Court, due to the time constraints brought on by the upcoming Alaska primary elections, issued an order affirming the Superior Court’s judgment. A full opinion has yet to be issued by the court. In a rare move, Chief Justice Stowers issued an opinion “dubitante,” pending the other justices full reasoning in the final opinion.  The Chief Justice doubts that the party affiliation rule substantially burdens the Alaska Democratic Party and that any minimal burden is justified by the State’s reasonable interest.

Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if the Alaska Supreme Court will rely on the same or similar grounds as the Superior Court. Aside from the merits of this case, given the Chief Justice’s doubts as to the Superior Court’s reasoning, the final opinion in this case may shed some light on the innerworkings of the court.

Jason B. Torchinsky is a partner at Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky PLLC

[1] The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska affirmed the Superior Courts ruling in a four sentence order indicating a full opinion will follow. At the time of this writing, a full opinion has yet to be issued.


[3] Alaska Statute 15.25.030(a)(16).

[4] 118 P.3d 1054 (Alaska 2005).

[5] 479 U.S. 208 (1986).

[6] 530 U.S. 351 (1997).

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