April 5, 2011 in Idaho

Idaho closed-primary election bill stalls

By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE - Legislation to require Idahoans, for the first time, to register by political party and allow parties to close their primaries to all but party members ran into trouble in a House committee this morning, after flying through the Senate with the backing of top GOP legislative leaders.

“I think it is a fundamental shift in election policy, and I have some questions about this bill that I need answered before I can make a decision as to whether to advance this piece of legislation forward,” said Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa.

The House State Affairs Committee voted unanimously to hold the bill for one day - even though that will mean meeting at 7:15 a.m. tomorrow, as the Legislature pushes toward an anticipated adjournment this week.

Rep. Elfreda Higgins, D-Garden City, said, “I truly don’t care if primaries are open or closed, but I really care about the cost to the taxpayers on registering political parties, on using the taxpayer money for political parties to get people registered for their party.”

The Idaho Republican Party successfully sued to overturn the current system, in which Idahoans can choose which party’s ballot to vote on during primary elections, without ever pledging loyalty to one party or another. The Idaho GOP adopted a party rule saying only registered Republicans should be able to vote in its primary, and a federal court ruled that the state law violated the party’s freedom of association rights by forcing violations of the party rule.

It’s now up to lawmakers to decide how to restructure Idaho’s primary election laws to comply with the court decision. The plan put forth by GOP leaders, in consultation with the Republican Party, would let parties choose each election whether they’re going to allow unaffiliated voters or members of other parties to vote, or just their own members; under the current Idaho GOP rules, it’d be just their own members.

The issue is of particular significance in Idaho, where this year’s Boise State University Public Policy Survey showed that independents are now the single largest group in the state at 37 percent, edging out Republicans, 33 percent, who hold most of the state’s elective offices, and Democrats, 21 percent, who hold few offices.

Gary Allen, attorney for a group of independent voters who are appealing the federal court decision, told lawmakers this morning that under the bill, SB 1198, “There are going to be some rude shocks for independent voters” when they show up at the polls in May of 2012 for the primary election.

“There are going to be a lot of people who sign up as unaffiliated and are going to be surprised when they show up at the voting and discover that they’re only voting for their district court candidates, and nothing else is available to them,” Allen warned. “That does not seem fair to me.”

Allen said there are plenty of other options for complying with the court decision without requiring party registration. Idaho could move to a “top two” primary, like Washington’s. Or it could let parties that want to close their process hold conventions or caucuses at their own expense. “We encourage you to adopt an option that allows independent participation,” he said. “The Republican primary in Idaho often is the only election that counts.”

SB 1198 estimates that the change would cost the state $215,000, much of that for voter education, and would cost counties another $160,000 for additional poll workers and voter education.

“It would probably be less after the first one,” House Speaker Lawerence Denney told the committee this morning. “The first one is for voter education and additional poll workers. Once everyone goes through the system and is registered, then they expect that to decrease. But that would be for the first one, and probably for the first couple.”

For 2012, the bill would have voters declare their party affiliation when they arrive at the polls if they haven’t previously registered. If they choose to remain unaffiliated and parties haven’t chosen to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in their primaries, the voters would be given only a nonpartisan ballot, for positions including judges.

Allen said, “This is a break with 100 years of history in the state of Idaho - never before has a voter in the state of Idaho had to declare a party preference.”

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