BOISE – Legislation to require Idahoans to register by political party and allow parties to close primary elections to all but party members ran into trouble in a House committee Tuesday 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,” said state Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa.
The House State Affairs Committee voted unanimously to hold the bill for one day as the Legislature pushes toward an anticipated adjournment this week.
The Idaho Republican Party successfully sued to overturn the current system, in which Idahoans can cast a ballot in any party they choose during primary elections without pledging loyalty to one party or another.
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 would let parties choose each election whether they’re going to allow unaffiliated voters or members of other parties to vote in addition to 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 Tuesday 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 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 (booth) and discover that they’re only voting for their district court candidates and nothing else is available to them,” Allen warned.
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. Or it could let parties that want to close their process hold conventions or caucuses at their own expense.
SB 1198 estimates that the change would cost the state $215,000 and would cost counties another $160,000 for additional poll workers and voter education.
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.