Invitation Only 

Waiting for the verdict on primaries

When it comes to primary elections in Idaho, it's not a question of whether to limit participation, but how much. A hearing this week might provide the answer.

When 72 members of the Idaho Republican Party filed a lawsuit against Secretary of State Ben Ysursa earlier this year to force the closure of the party's primaries to declared party members only, the issue was forced to the forefront.

Idaho's primaries have always been open to anyone who wished to vote. But some of the state's Republicans feel the system gives Democrats an unfair opportunity to meddle in their primaries. So they sued.

A hearing on the lawsuit, as well as a countersuit by the state seeking to have the matter dismissed, will be heard on Nov. 15. Many believe any decision will force some kind of change in state voting law.

Keith Allred, president of Common Interest, a nonpartisan political think tank, said Idaho's system is due for change.

"In our minds, it would be good policy even if there wasn't a dispute," he said.

Unlike the plan championed by the Republicans, which would not allow independent voters to participate in primary elections, Allred favors a modified closed primary. A modified primary limits voting to party members, but it would also allow independent voters to choose to vote either in the Republican or Democratic primaries.

Allred said national research shows that truly closed primaries "give the least representative, most extreme candidates. You get folks that are representative of extreme wings, but not the districts they're supposed to represent," he said.

Allred said while there is a certain amount of manipulative cross-over voting in a modified primary, the majority of independents who vote do so to support someone they see as a good candidate.

Former state legislator Rod Beck, one of the Republicans who filed the suit, said their plan would allow parties to choose whether to allow independents to vote, but added the Republican Party would not allow outside participation.

"It only affects Republican voters," he said. "If you want to vote in a Republican primary, it's the only time you'd have to register by party. If you're a Democrat, and want to remain so, it doesn't change anything."

The move toward closed primaries has been more than a year in the making. The state Republican Party passed a resolution to close primaries during its 2006 annual convention. That resolution was formally adopted by the party's central committee in 2007, making it part of the party platform and putting party rules in direct conflict with state law.

While two bills designed to change the voting laws found some support during the last legislative session, neither was passed before the Legislature adjourned. Party leaders said they would wait for the 2008 session to push for changes.

Allred, who worked to create both versions of the bill, said Republican leadership dragged its feet when the idea for a modified closed primary was introduced. Eventually Kirk Sullivan, chairman of the Idaho Republican Party, signed on as a co-sponsor of SB 1244. That bill allowed independents the option to participate and enacted the change in 2008. Concerns over the secretary of state's ability to make the changes fast enough prompted a second bill, which pushed the date back to 2010. Sullivan did not co-sponsor that bill.

Allred said concerns about reconciling the ballots have been settled in large with a plan that would give independent voters both Republican and Democratic ballots. Independents would be able to fill one ballot out and return it, but if the second ballot was marked as well, both would be invalidated.

Allred said he was both disappointed and a little surprised by the lawsuit. "It's controversial to ask for a federal judge to decide something we could decide in our legislature," he said.

Sullivan declined to comment, other than to repeat that the Idaho Republican Party is not involved in the suit. Sullivan did provid a letter in support of the state's countersuit, which wants the complaint dismissed because the plaintiffs lack legal standing.

Not surprisingly, the rogue Republicans take issue with this claim. So in mid-August they changed their lawsuit to say they represent not the Republican Party of Idaho itself, but that they were acting in its best interest.

Additionally, the group filed a response brief on Nov. 12, making the case for their legal standing. The brief states that the voters of the party, not the Republican Party itself, are the "real party of interest" because they are the ones who would be injured if an Idaho vote is deemed unconstitutional since party rules and state law are in conflict.

It also states that the party members' right to free political association are in imminent danger since "the state of Idaho has not, and will not, enforce the Republican Party closed primary rule."

"It's critically important we get the rule absolutely ratified," Beck said. "We don't want to see a constitutional crisis where our election results are questioned."

Allred said he believes there is a 60 percent chance the lawsuit will be dismissed outright, in which case Beck said the group will appeal.

Whatever the outcome, Allred said he expects the Legislature will adopt a modified closed primary during the next session, adding that a fully closed primary will never be approved by the Legislature.

But the political ramifications go beyond the Republican Party.

"It is clearly the conservatives who are moving for this," Allred said. "It gives them more control of the party, and we will get far more conservative nominees."

The exclusion of independent voters could damage the entire party. "It would be a serious black eye for the party," he said.

While Democrats may see it as an opportunity to pick up seats in the Legislature, Allred said the elimination of moderate Republicans would make it harder for them to pass any legislation.

Rep. Dean Cameron, R-Dist. 26, said he worries about exiling independent voters with a closed primary.

"Most Idahoans are independent by nature," he said. "They may vote Republican most of the time, but not be a 100 percent, dyed-in-the-wool Republican. It's important not to alienate that voter and say we don't want their participation in the primary process."

Cameron participated in discussions about the bills last year and said he expects legislation to be brought forward only if the court grants the injunction.

"If the court rules in our favor [by dismissing the lawsuit], we'll be happy to move on and probably not address it," Cameron said.

A closed primary also raises other legal questions, including if it's fair to ask Idahoans to continue funding election costs for a primary only a portion of them could participate in.

Cameron said the majority of lawmakers would support a modified closed primary. "Most individuals agree that we'd be far better off with a modified system than a fully closed primary," he said.

"We already have a process that most of our citizens aren't taking the opportunity to get out and vote," Cameron said. " If you have some sort of a completely closed system, you will alienate people."

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