Idaho is going through the same challenges that Washington state faced when its independent-oriented election system was ruled unconstitutional by the courts. But instead of trying to preserve that independence, the Idaho Legislature is trying to permanently eradicate it.
U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Winmill said the Idaho Republican Party presented compelling evidence that voters crossed over from other parties to influence the outcomes of primary elections. This, he wrote, violated the party’s First Amendment right of free association.
Under Idaho’s primary system, voters do not have to declare party affiliation and can choose which ballot to vote on in the privacy of the booth. Voters may want to cross over because they know that many races are decided in the GOP primary. Republican officials felt they didn’t have appropriate control over who would carry the party designation into the general election.
We can’t fault a private party for wanting to pick its standard bearers. The Elks, the Sierra Club, the Chamber of Commerce and political parties should be able to do that. But as long as taxpayer dollars are involved in political elections, then other people should be considered. The Secretary of State’s Office says 750,000 voters are registered without affiliation. A Boise State University Public Policy survey shows that 33 percent of those voters are Republican, 37 percent are independents and 21 percent are Democrats.
Nonetheless, on a party-line vote, the Idaho Senate passed a bill that would leave it to the parties to decide whether unaffiliated voters can participate in primaries. If the answer is no, then those voters would have to register as Republicans or Democrats before they could vote in those races. This affiliation would become public record. After the election, voters would have to fill out more paperwork to resume their unaffiliated status.
Legislative proponents say they have no choice, because of Judge Windmill’s decision. However, the state could appeal the ruling and it would probably have a lot of support, because many other states also have open primaries that are now in jeopardy. But that’s unlikely since the state is run by the same party that brought the lawsuit.
Beyond that, there is another remedy that has passed constitutional muster and maintained the traditional and popular expectation of independence: the top two primary, which was recently adopted in Washington state. Under this system, the top two vote-getters advance regardless of party affiliation. The parties can still choose their favorites and tout them, but taxpayers do not pick up the tab for those activities.
Speaking of the tab, a closed primary would cost the struggling state $215,000 for new voter registration cards, and the counties would incur $160,000 in costs for additional poll workers and the administration needed to enforce it. That’s on top of the $100,000 the Legislature approved as payment to the Republican Party for its court costs in overturning the open primary.
If lawmakers don’t want the top two primary, then they should find another system that doesn’t draw on public money for their exclusive, private activities.