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Alaska Libertarian Party prepares a lawsuit as candidates struggle to reach November’s ballot

Public health restrictions intended to deal with the coronavirus pandemic are making this year’s election more difficult for third-party candidates.

With door-to-door petitioning off the table, unaffiliated candidates running for office say they’re having a hard time gathering signatures needed to appear on the ballot.

"I am a little bit nervous about it, and it does make it problematic,” said Dan Ortiz, an independent member of the Alaska Legislature who is seeking re-election in Ketchikan.

Elijah Verhagen, a conservative independent seeking election to an Interior statehouse district, was blunter in his assessment.

“It’s been a pain in the butt,” he said.

The Alaska Libertarian Party is ready to go beyond complaining: It’s preparing a lawsuit against the state, saying that in part, pandemic-related restrictions are blocking its presidential candidate from the November election.

In order to appear as a named candidate on the November ballot, state law says a candidate needs to either win a party primary or file a petition signed by at least 1% of the number of voters who participated in the last election for that office.

Those signatures don’t need to be submitted until Aug. 18, but some candidates worry that public health restrictions will cause problems.

Care Clift, a Libertarian-turned-unaffiliated candidate for Alaska Senate, said that given her age, she’s worried about going door to door to gather signatures.

“I want to be cautious. I’m over 65, so I don’t want to take chances,” she said.

Clift, who has extensive experience running for office, said spring is an ideal time to gather signatures. By the time summer hits full swing, Alaskans head outdoors, and it's tough to get them at home.

"It’s not a huge number of signatures, but when you can’t go door to door and you can’t have a table in front of a mall, then it’s very difficult," she said.

So far, two U.S. Senate candidates, two Alaska Senate candidates and five Alaska House candidates have registered as independent candidates with the Alaska Division of Elections. More have filed letters of intent but have not officially filed.

Gail Fenumiai, director of the Division of Elections, said her hands are tied by state law. Candidates can email signature sheets to supporters, have them sign their names, then send the sheets back to the candidate.

“It can be done in a noncontact manner,” she said.

Ed King, an independent candidate for a statehouse seat representing part of Juneau, said he’s not yet concerned. While candidates must register by June 1, he has until August to gather the 89 signatures he needs.

Candidates for statewide office face a higher hurdle. In 2016, the Libertarian candidate for president gathered more than 5% of Alaska’s presidential votes, enough to automatically qualify the party for the 2020 presidential race.

The Division of Elections, however, has ruled that the party did poorly enough in the 2018 race for governor that it lost automatic-qualifier status.

It now says the party needs to either convince about 1,500 more Alaskans to register as Libertarians or gather more than 3,200 signatures on a petition to put its candidate on the ballot.

Jon Watts, chairman of the Libertarian Party in Alaska, said the national Libertarian Party has approved a lawsuit against the state to fight that ruling.

“The only relief it looks like we’re going to get is in court,” he said.

The party will seek a ruling akin to one that took place in Illinois last month. There, a federal judge cut signature requirements by 90%, enabling the party’s presidential pick to make the ballot.

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