By BECKY BOHRER, Associated Press
JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Political donors have sued over campaign-finance rules enacted under a 2020 voter initiative, arguing the disclosure rules are burdensome and could lead to reprisals against them and their business interests in a climate of "cancel culture."
The disclosure rules were part of a ballot measure that overhauled Alaska's elections system and was passed by voters in 2020. Provisions of the measure calling for open primaries and ranked-choice voting in general elections were challenged previously in state courts and upheld.
At issue in the new lawsuit, which was filed in federal court April 7, are disclosure rules, including disclaimers required for ads and required reporting around contributions greater than $2,000 that are given to or received by third-party groups known as independent expenditure groups. The lawsuit alleges these disclosure provisions are unconstitutional.
Lawyers involved in the case — Craig Richards, a former Alaska attorney general, and Daniel Suhr with the Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center — filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of challenges to the open-primary system and ranked-choice voting when those were before the Alaska Supreme Court. They did so on behalf of former Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and former lawmaker Dick Randolph.
Suhr said one reason they waited to file the federal lawsuit was that they wanted to see what the state Supreme Court would do, including whether it would strike the entire initiative down. The high court in January issued a brief order affirming Superior Court Judge Gregory Miller's decision upholding the open-primary and ranked-choice system as valid. A fuller opinion from the state Supreme Court is pending.
Miller noted in his ruling that the plaintiffs in that case did not challenge the new law's "attempt to preclude 'dark money.'"
Suhr said after the action by the state Supreme Court, "that's when we turned to say, OK, the next step is to focus on these campaign-finance provisions that really haven't been thoroughly addressed yet."
He said the measure was "the most aggressive law of its kind in the country" and raised First Amendment issues.
Plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit are Doug Smith of Anchorage, who was described by a spokesperson for the Liberty Justice Center as an executive in the oil and energy industry; Robert Griffin of Anchorage; Allen Vezey of Fairbanks; Albert Haynes of Wasilla and Trevor Shaw of Ketchikan. The lawsuit describes each of them as sometimes donating more than $2,000 to organizations that make independent expenditures.
Also listed as plaintiffs are the Alaska Free Market Coalition and Families of the Last Frontier, which are described as independent expenditure groups. A 2022 filing with the Alaska Public Offices Commission shows Shaw as chair of the Alaska Free Market Coalition, which describes itself as promoting candidates "who are fiscally conservative, pro-business, and supportive of free-market economic principles."
The lawsuit names as defendants members of the Alaska Public Offices Commission, which oversees campaign finance rules in the state.
Heather Hebdon, the commission's executive director, said commission staff had no comment on the lawsuit. Daniel Cacciatore, a spokesperson for the state Department of Law, said the department was reviewing the complaint and had no comment at this time.
Scott Kendall, an attorney for Alaskans for Better Elections, which supported the initiative, in a statement said the group would seek to intervene in "this baseless suit and defend the reforms passed in 2020."
Jason Grenn, executive director of Alaskans for Better Elections, said voters "made it clear that they want increased campaign transparency and have a right to know who is spending money on their elections. Nothing in ballot measure two violates the first amendment, nor does it limit political speech."
The Free Speech Center newsletter offers a digest of First Amendment and news media-related news every other week. Subscribe for free here: https://bit.ly/3kG9uiJ