Lawsuit, Round II 

May primary elections unlikely to be affected by suit

Clarification Below

The lawsuit's filed, but will it matter?

The Idaho Republican Party filed suit in U.S. District Court against Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa last week in a second effort to force closed primary elections, but the complaint may not even be read before the May primaries.

"We're looking at 2010," said Idaho Republican Party executive director Sid Smith.

Between now and then, the 2009 Idaho Legislature will have the chance to pass legislation that could make the lawsuit moot.

"It would certainly change the landscape for the lawsuit," Smith said.

For some observers, it seems like party leadership is leaving as much room for legislative solutions as possible.

Among them is Keith Allred, president of the nonpartisan The Common Interest who led the charge for primary election reform. He believes a court decision will direct the Legislature to enact a closed primary.

This is the first official suit for the party. A similar complaint last year was brought by a group of 72 individual Republicans led by former state legislator Rod Beck, but the suit was dismissed for lack of standing (BW, News, "Lawsuit Limbo," Dec. 5, 2007).

Many party leaders openly worried that limiting primaries to registered Republicans would alienate independent voters, who make up a large chunk of Idaho voters and tend to support Republican candidates.

"That's a very real concern," Smith said. "Even in a strongly Republican state like Idaho, you always have to appeal to the independent voters. Those are critical to any election. We wouldn't be successful without attracting independent voters," he said.

Smith calls the scenario hypothetical, and said he hopes the party can find a way around the issue. In the meantime though, the lawsuit was unavoidable.

But Allred said the debate within the party is indicative of a larger split within the state Republican Party.

"It's as pitched a dispute between moderates and conservatives as we've seen in a long time," he said.

In January, the party's Central Committee formally adopted a closed primary rule, and required the party to file suit within 10 days of the close of the legislative session if a bill had not been passed. If the party failed to do so, individual members would be given legal standing to file suit on the party's behalf.

"If we didn't do it, somebody else was going to do it," Smith said.

Primary election bills have been introduced in two consecutive legislative sessions, but have failed to gain the necessary support.

The most recent bill would have created a modified open primary system, allowing independent voters to choose to participate in either party's primary. If a party wanted a closed primary, it could pick up the bill.

Allred said he expects the same version will be introduced next year.

Smith said the party was willing to consider the last bill, although some members don't believe a modified primary guarantees the purity of a Republican vote.

With the future of primaries in limbo, Smith said party leadership is doing what it has to.

"These are the cards that we have to play," he said.

Clarification:

Keith Allred, president of The Common Interest, said he is not promoting closed primary elections. He believes the courts will strike Idaho’s open primary law and give the issue back to the legislature.

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