Court Overturns Primary Ruling

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A federal judge's ruling that would have banned 20 percent of Arizona's voters from participating in the state's primary election was put on hold Wednesday by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

Until the appellate panel issued its ruling, Gila County elections officials were scrambling to let affected voters those not affiliated with the Democratic, Republican or Libertarian parties know that the only way they could participate in the primary was to re-register and declare a party affiliation by midnight Monday. The ruling by U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins, issued Monday, banned their participation in primaries on the grounds that it would interfere with the internal leadership of those parties.

"The state attorney general's office had requested the ruling be overturned by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals because early voting started Thursday," Linda Haught-Ortega, Gila County recorder, said.

While Collins' ruling was not overturned, the stay allows early voting and the Sept. 10 primary to proceed under the state's open-primary law passed in 1998.

"(Under the open-primary law) if you registered as 'no party' or 'independent' you could declare on the day of the primary which ticket you wanted to vote," Haught-Ortega said. "That was first implemented in the election two years ago."

Collins' decision to void the open-primary law effectively banned independent voters from taking part in party primaries. The ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed in March by the Libertarian Party arguing that the open primary violates their First Amendment right to freedom of association by allowing independent voters to influence the selection of party candidates.

In arguing the matter before the 9th Circuit Court, the attorney general's office emphasized that Collins' ruling would disenfranchise 416,079 Arizona voters registered as independents. Less than one percent of registered voters 14,432 are Libertarians.

Gila County has a total of 29,942 registered voters 15,504 Democrats, 10,536 Republicans, 123 Libertarians, 23 Reform Party, 20 Green Party, 1 Natural Law Party, and 3,735 registered as "other," the category that includes independents and no party affiliation.

The attorney general's office also emphasized that Collins' ruling would not allow independent voters sufficient time to change their registrations, that it would be confusing for voters, and that the Libertarian Party had offered no evidence that independent voters influence party primaries.

The Democratic and Republican parties opted not to participate in the lawsuit.

Peter Schmerl, chairman of the Libertarian Party, argued that with so few registered Libertarians even a minimal number of independent votes could turn the outcome of its races.

The issue will probably be resolved sometime next year. In the meantime, Haught-Ortega and election officials around the state are relieved that the primary can proceed as planned.

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