Less than 17 percent of Ada County registered voters cast a ballot in Tuesday’s Idaho primary election – less than 17 percent in the state’s most populous county, home to its capital, Boise.
Statewide, the turnout was an estimated 23 percent of registered voters, the lowest going back at least as far as 1980, when the ballot casting began a three-decade descent from the 41.3 percent who voted in the primaries that year. But then, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan was on the ballot for the GOP presidential nomination.
Reagan, whose 11th Commandment was “Republicans should not criticize other Republicans,” might have been startled by an election in which Reaganites criticized Reaganites in Kootenai County.
And saddened by a dismal voter turnout caused in large part by a Republican Party so jealous of its purity that party officials would allow only those willing to declare their allegiance before the world to receive the sacred – but not secret – GOP ballot.
The party’s position was a slap in the face to the slight plurality of Idaho voters who register as independents, and the many Republicans who, objecting to being party-bossed around, did not go to the polls. The state’s ragged band of Democrats, on the other hand, welcomed all comers. There weren’t many.
The absence of a presidential contest explains some of the deterioration in voter interest. Those choices were made in caucuses much criticized for ill planning and endless gab. But the closed primary Republicans put in place last year has clearly stifled voter participation. The process did not serve the voters, the candidates, the state or the party itself well.
The answer, or one of them anyway: a top-two system like that adopted in Washington as a result of a 2004 voter initiative. The ballot lists the names of all candidates for an office and their party “preference,” and the two candidates who get the most votes move on to the general election.
Officials from both parties dislike top two – one party’s candidate may lack the votes to make the November ballot – but the system has worked well so far and might work even better in Idaho because Republicans are so dominant.
In several races Tuesday, the Democratic candidate received only several hundred votes while multiple Republicans received more than 1,000. But only one, sometimes with just a plurality of GOP votes, will be on the November ballot. That election will be a walk-over for the Republican, instead of a vigorously – if not venomously – contested race between two under the GOP/Reaganite banner.
Consider how hotly the intraparty races might have proceeded this year in Idaho with Mitt Romney on top of the ticket.
Gov. Butch Otter says he expects Republicans to revisit the decision to close their primary when they hold their state convention next month. The voters, by staying home, have already spoken. Top two may not be the answer, but closure was wrong, wrong, wrong.