Judge declares Idaho’s open primaries unconstitutional

BOISE - A federal judge on Wednesday declared Idaho’s open primary election system unconstitutional, ruling that it violates the right of the state’s Republican Party to ban anyone who’s not a party member from voting in its primaries.

“An important corollary of the right to freely associate is a right not to associate,” wrote U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill in his decision. He found “clear evidence of crossover voting” in Idaho’s primaries.

The decision sends a shock wave through the election system in Idaho, which has never required its voters to register their party affiliation.

“My main concern here, as secretary of state and chief election official, it’s up to us to get the mechanics right and the logistics right on how we’re going to run an election,” said Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, a Republican. He’s the one the party sued to overturn the law.

Ysursa, who said 750,000 Idaho voters are now registered without any party affiliation, said, “From an election administration standpoint, there’s some challenges ahead.”

Jonathan Parker, Idaho Republican Party executive director, said the party is planning to work with legislative leaders and the governor to propose legislation this year to change Idaho’s primary election system. “I think what you’ll see is registration by party, and each year the party will decide whether or not to allow independents who want to vote in the Republican primary to do so,” he said. “This isn’t final, it isn’t set in stone.”

Boise State University political scientist Gary Moncrief said that approach might require law changes each year; 36 percent of Idahoans say they’re independents, according to this year’s BSU Public Policy Survey, while 42 percent say they’re Republicans and 17 percent say they’re Democrats.

The Idaho Republican Party has sought for several years to close its primaries, contending Democrats were casting votes in them and sabotaging more conservative candidates.

The judge said expert testimony presented in the case showed that closing the primary “will likely have the ‘very real and immediate effect of … producing more ideologically extreme candidates.’” He wrote, “At first blush, that would appear to be a strong argument for maintaining the status quo. But, choosing ideologically extreme candidates is precisely what a political party is entitled to do in asserting its right of association under the First Amendment.”

Parker said, “I think it will help strengthen the political parties in Idaho, knowing who your supporters are and who they aren’t.”

Moncrief said, “The argument a lot of people make is, well, it means that the Republican Party will become more conservative. I’m not sure that’s really very possible at this point. What it does mean is that there is the potential for litmus testing on specific issues.”

Norm Semanko, Idaho Republican Party chairman, said in a statement, “The Idaho Republican Party is an open and inclusive party and we welcome any Idahoan to join us and participate in our party’s candidate selection process. We only ask, and have a right to expect, that members of the Democrat Party or other political parties will not choose our candidates for us.”

New Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Larry Grant said, “The Democratic Party welcomes all those voters across the state who have now been thrown out by the Republicans.”

Read the decision at our Eye on Boise blog.

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