September 5, 2009 in Idaho

Judge sets trial on Idaho primaries

By The Spokesman-Review
 

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 votes 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 fall.

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 First Amendment right to free association.

“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 said he’ll issue a final decision “well before the 2010 Idaho legislative session begins.”

The case has been pending since April 2008, and Idaho’s next primary election is in May 2010. Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said that 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, a Republican, noted, “Idaho’s never had party registration, in its history, and Idahoans pride themselves on their independence.” The judge 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 among candidates from various parties, are different from open primary elections like Idaho’s, in which voters don’t mix and match candidates from different parties.

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