BOISE - A federal judge had a message Friday for the Idaho Republican Party, which claims Idaho’s open primary election system violates its constitutional rights: Prove it.
U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill on Friday denied motions from both sides in the case - the Idaho GOP and the state of Idaho - to either grant or toss out the party’s bid to close its primary elections to anyone other than party members. Instead, he said he needs more proof of how “crossover” voting by non-Republicans in GOP primaries has violated the party’s rights, and he scheduled a trial for this fall.
“Genuine issues of material fact remain - mainly whether and to what extent ‘crossover’ voting exists in Idaho, and whether and to what extent the threat of such crossover voting affects the message of IRP and its candidates,” the judge wrote in his Friday ruling. He reopened the case to submission of that evidence, and declared his intent to “conduct the trial or evidentiary hearing, and issue a final decision, well before the 2010 Idaho legislative session begins.”
Party Chairman Norm Semanko said in a statement, “The Idaho Republican Party welcomes today’s decision, rejecting the attempts that have been made to throw this case out. The matter will now go forward for a decision in an expedited manner.”
The case, first filed in April 2008, has been pending for long months already, however, and Idaho’s next primary election is looming in May of 2010. Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said regardless of how the case goes, it’s getting late to make any changes for the upcoming primary. Candidates start filing for that primary election on March 8.
Ysursa, himself a Republican, noted, “Idaho’s never had party registration, in its history, and Idahoans pride themselves on their independence. Idahoans as a whole, and the independent voter and how they’re treated, is a crucial part of this whole scenario, and there’s quite a bit of disagreement over that.”
The Idaho GOP passed a rule to close its primaries, then sued the state, saying the current open primary system - in which voters can select any party’s ballot at the polls - violates the party’s 1st Amendment right to free association.
The judge, however, wrote that the GOP’s court case rested almost entirely on a U.S. Supreme Court Case, California Democratic Party v. Jones, in which the high court overturned that state’s “blanket” primary as unconstitutional. In that case, the Supreme Court justices were presented with extensive statistics, studies and expert testimony on crossover voting the blanket primary brought about, and its impact on the party’s right of association.
But Winmill noted that blanket primary elections, in which voters pick and choose among candidates from various parties, are different from open primary elections like Idaho’s, in which voters must choose a single party’s ballot and vote only for candidates on that ballot, not mix and match candidates from different parties.
Winmill wrote that all he got in the Idaho case was Semanko’s testimony that he “can’t say whether (crossover voting) did or didn’t or has or hasn’t affected the ultimate outcome of any particular primary,” that no studies of that exist, but that Semanko asserted that “Every single Republican who has been on the primary ballot since 1988” has modified his or her political message, ideology and position on public policy issues in order to persuade nonparty members to back him or her in the primary. “Chairman Semanko and IRP cite no evidence supporting this conclusion,” the judge wrote. “Surveys, expert testimony, statistics and/or testimony from the candidates themselves is needed.”
Rod Beck, an Idaho GOP activist who’s pushed for closed primaries, said, “We just have to cross our T’s and dot the i’s. This is not a setback for us at all, this is actually positive news.”