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House panel endorses HB 391; primary election would stay in May

Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, left, chairs the House State Affairs Committee on Monday; at right is Rep. Elaine Smith, D-Pocatello. (Betsy Russell)
Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, left, chairs the House State Affairs Committee on Monday; at right is Rep. Elaine Smith, D-Pocatello. (Betsy Russell)

The vote was unanimous in the House State Affairs Committee this morning, in favor of HB 391, Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa's bill to eliminate the state's spring presidential preference primary, now that both political parties are choosing their presidential delegates through caucuses; the bill now moves to the full House for a vote. Tim Hurst, chief deputy Idaho secretary of state, said, "Basically the decision will already have been made by the primary election." Idaho Republicans plan to hold their presidential caucus this year March 6th, and Democrats on April 14th. Holding the presidential preference primary along with Idaho's spring primary would cost the state $60,000, Hurst said, and would be "just a waste of money, because it serves no public purpose. All it would be is for a beauty contest; there's no decision to be made." Plus, he said, "It adds to voter confusion. People will think they're voting for something that counts, and actually the decision has already been made."

Glenn Miles testified at length against the bill, saying it would disenfranchise deployed members of the military from participating in presidential primaries, along with others who prefer to cast a secret ballot rather than stand up at a caucus and say which candidate they support. "Individuals are going to be asking each and every legislator why you took my right to give my preference," he warned. "There's going to be resentment by the military."

Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, said, "We as a Legislature can't stop caucuses anyway, can we? That's at the discretion of the party." Hurst responded, "That's correct."

The committee's passage of HB 391 means an alternative bill - introduced earlier by committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona - isn't moving forward; in addition to eliminating the presidential preference primary, that bill would have moved Idaho's primary election back from May to August. Gov. Butch Otter has spoken out strongly against the move, saying it would limit voter participation in Idaho's already lightly attended primary election.

Loertscher said his bill may not be entirely dead: "It may be an end-of-session thing," he joked. "If we're still here in session on the 17th of May, maybe we'll have to consider it."

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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