Alaska State Judge Contemplates Fine Against Supporters of Ranked Choice Repeal Measure

In downtown Anchorage, the Boney Courthouse is located across the street from the larger Nesbett Courthouse. It is home to the Alaska Supreme Court chambers. A photo taken by Yereth Rosen for the Alaska Beacon.

A decision on whether to uphold a substantial fine imposed by Alaska’s campaign finance regulators against supporters of a petition to reverse the state’s election laws will be made by an Anchorage Superior Court judge by the end of the month.

A fine of over $90,000 has been imposed by the Alaska Public Offices Commission on petition supporters. The commission found that these supporters had unlawfully channeled funds through a church in Washington state.

In Anchorage Superior Court, the supporters of the decision filed an appeal, while the opponents of the petition cross-appealed, arguing that the imposed fine was insufficient and that more severe penalties should have been imposed.

The outcome of the oral argument on Friday resembled a complex situation reminiscent of Goldilocks, as attorneys presented their case to Judge Laura Hartz. They sought her decision on whether the fine imposed was excessive, insufficient, or appropriate, and whether additional measures are necessary.

Hartz stated that she plans to deliver a verdict by June 21, possibly extending until the following Monday.

The deadline would provide the Alaska Supreme Court with enough time to review the matter before the upcoming November election. During this election, voters will have the opportunity to decide whether they wish to maintain or eliminate the elections system that was implemented through a ballot measure in 2020.

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The system involves placing all candidates for a specific office into an open primary election in August. Following this, the top four vote-getters proceed to a ranked choice election in November. In a new development, political groups are now required to disclose the origin of funds they contribute to candidates. This provision aims to ensure transparency and accountability in campaign financing.

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

During the argument, he asserted that a state law, which bans campaign contributions made in someone else’s name, does not extend to ballot initiatives. He further argued against the imposition of any fines.

In the court’s perspective, if they do find that the law is applicable, it has been stated that the First Amendment would prevent the enactment of any law that restricts individuals from donating money to a political cause using another person’s name.

“Ballot petition circulation is considered a fundamental form of political expression,” stated Clarkson in a brief presenting his argument. In addition, he claimed that campaign regulators made errors in imposing fines on Mathias, asserting that they penalized him twice.

Attorney Samuel Gottstein presented his case in court on behalf of Alaskans for Better Elections, who are standing against the repeal initiative. Alaskans for Better Elections was also responsible for the successful 2020 ballot initiative that implemented the current elections system.

“It is crucial to note that there is no constitutional right for unlimited anonymous or fictitious contributions to organizations supporting ballot initiatives,” he emphasized during the arguments on Friday.

Gottstein has argued that state regulators made a correct decision in applying state limits to the proposed repeal ballot measure. However, he believes that they made a mistake in determining the amount of the fine.

Regulators could have imposed a “stacking penalty” and raised the maximum fine for individuals who violate campaign finance laws, especially those who lack experience.

In a legal battle, the Department of Law, representing the Alaska Public Offices Commission, maintained that the regulators’ fine should be upheld. They argued that the law, which prohibits donations under a different name, should also be applicable to ballot initiatives.

According to Attorney Kate Demarest, who is representing the state, it is important for Hartz to confirm the commission’s actions exactly as they are written.

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