Lawsuit says Sweeney should advance in Alaska US House race

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A state court judge on Thursday said he was tentatively inclined to agree with the state elections office that the fifth-place finisher in a special primary for Alaska’s U.S. House seat cannot replace in the upcoming special election a candidate who abruptly dropped out.

But Superior Court Judge William Morse said he will accept further pleadings before making a final decision. He planned to rule on Friday.

His comments came during a hearing on a lawsuit filed earlier in the day that argued that the Alaska Division of Elections misinterpreted state law. The lawsuit says the fifth-place finisher in the special primary, Republican Tara Sweeney, should be put on the August special election ballot in place of independent Al Gross, who withdrew his candidacy.

The case was filed on behalf of registered voters Sunny Guerin of Anchorage, Vera Lincoln of Fairbanks and Elizabeth Asisaun Toovak of Utqiagvik.

Gross was third in the June 11 special primary, behind Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich and ahead of Democrat Mary Peltola. He was poised to advance to the special election as one of the top four vote-getters under a new open primary system. But late Monday, he suddenly announced plans to end his campaign.

Gail Fenumiai, the division’s director, in a letter Tuesday said that because Gross withdrew less than 64 days before the election, state law did not permit the division to put the fifth-place candidate on the special election ballot in his place.

She said Gross withdrew Tuesday and his name would be removed from the special election ballot.

The lawsuit says the timeline cited by Fenumiai does not apply to special elections.

The special primary was the first election under a system approved by Alaska voters that ends party primaries and institutes ranked-choice voting in general elections. The lawsuit wrongly states that the special primary was ranked choice.

Sweeney’s campaign said it would not sue over the issue. But Sweeney said she believed she should be moved into fourth place and that voters should have four candidates to choose from.

Fenumiai said the division needs a final decision by the courts by Tuesday to print ballots in time to meet deadlines and to keep the special election on schedule.