BOISE – Say you’re an Idaho voter who wants to cast a ballot in next year’s primary election for Sarah Palin for president, or Mike Huckabee, or Mitt Romney.
In a state that’s never had party registration, you could be in for a surprise at the polls, where voters will be required to become party members – or they might not get to vote in anything but nonpartisan judges’ races.
“Being an independent, you don’t like that too well,” said Mitch Campbell, a Twin Falls businessman who heads the American Independent Movement of Idaho.
Idaho’s complicated new primary election system – a modified-closed primary that replaces the state’s long-established open primary – was pushed by Republicans, who sued in federal court, saying they didn’t want nonparty members meddling in their primaries.
But independents are now the single-largest group of voters in the state, with this year’s Boise State University Public Policy Survey showing they make up 37 percent of Idahoans, edging out Republicans, at 33 percent, and Democrats, at 21 percent. Judging by Idaho elections results, which are overwhelmingly Republican, many of those independents have been voting Republican.
Rod Beck, a GOP activist and former state lawmaker who pushed for the change, doesn’t care. “Republicans should be choosing who Republican candidates are,” he said.
Idaho lawmakers created the new system on near-party-line votes this year, and GOP Gov. Butch Otter signed it into law despite misgivings. It matches a trend in state legislatures around the country toward more restrictive primary election laws. In contrast, when citizens step in and pass their own laws by initiative, they’re more likely to move toward something wide open like Washington’s top-two primary system. Five states have now gone that route; the remainder are almost evenly split between open and closed primaries.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, legislation was introduced in 13 states this year to close their primary elections and exclude nonparty members; only six states saw bills introduced to open them up.
Gary Moncrief, a BSU political scientist who studies elections, said, “I think the trend is definitely that way, because the two parties are so much farther apart ideologically right now that the purists in both parties want control of the nomination process. … Since about 1930 or ’40, we haven’t had the parties as far apart and as pure as we do right now.”
But, he said, “Most of the people in the general public are not as partisan.”
Here’s how Idaho’s new system will work, with its first test in next year’s big presidential primary:
For 2012, voters will have to declare their party affiliation when they arrive at the polls for the May primary, if they haven’t previously registered it. If they choose to remain unaffiliated, the voters would be given only a nonpartisan ballot, for positions including district and Supreme Court judges.
Each election, however, parties will get to choose among several options: whether to keep their primaries members-only; let unaffiliated voters cast ballots; and/or let members of other parties vote, too – and they can designate which ones.
The Idaho Republican Party adopted rules two years ago banning anyone but registered Republicans from voting in its primary; that was the basis for the party’s successful lawsuit.
In July, the Idaho GOP’s central committee will meet in Moscow and decide whether to change that rule or stick with it for the 2012 election. Idaho GOP Executive Director Jonathan Parker called it the biggest issue the party will address all year.
Beck, who serves on the party’s rules committee, said he’ll oppose any change, including letting unaffiliated voters cast ballots in the GOP primary. “It would sort of defeat our purpose,” he said. “It would make it too easy for those who don’t really support our cause … to participate in our primary.”
The Idaho Democratic Party’s rules currently let anyone vote in its primaries, and party Chairman Larry Grant said his party plans to stick with that. His message to Republicans: “Whoever you kick out of your party, we’d be glad to have them vote in ours.”
After 2012, unaffiliated voters would be able to use Idaho’s same-day registration law to affiliate with a party on the spot and vote in a party’s primary election, but that would turn them into registered party members. Voters who already registered with a party, however, couldn’t switch on Election Day; the cutoff for them to do so would be the last day of the candidate filing period, which falls in late March.
Plus, everything about the process will be public record, from a voter’s party affiliation to an unaffiliated voter’s decision to vote in a party primary, if allowed by the party.
Gary Allen, attorney for a group of independent voters who are appealing the federal court decision, said, “It’s just another infringement, and another insult by a party system that is just tone-deaf to where so many people are.”
Idaho’s new law has no restrictions on switching party affiliation after elections, so an unaffiliated voter could register with a party on Election Day, then switch back to unaffiliated the next week to keep options open for the next primary election.
One problem with all this: “A lot of people aren’t going to know the rules,” Moncrief said. “I think a lot of people are going to walk in to vote in the primary and find out that there is this condition to their voting. And that may surprise some people.”