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Eye On Boise

Closed primary fight hits federal court

The fight between the Idaho Republican Party and the state over whether the state's primary elections can be closed to all but registered party members - Idaho has no official party registration - arrived in federal court in Boise for arguments on Wednesday. Click below to read the full report from AP reporter Todd Dvorak; U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill didn't indicate when he'll issue his ruling in the case.

Republicans make case for closed primary
Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A lawyer for the Idaho Republican Party told a federal judge Wednesday that the party has a right to determine who can join and ultimately what kind of voters should be allowed to cast ballots in its primary elections.

If U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill agrees, Idaho would have to scrap a decades-old system that allows voters to cast either a Democratic or Republican ballot in primary elections. Instead, the Republican Party, which has long dominated Idaho politics, wants to limit Republican primary participation to voters willing to register as Republicans.

"Registration is meaningful to the Republican Party," GOP lawyer Christ Troupis told the judge during an hour-long hearing.

Last April, the Idaho Republican Party sued the state, specifically Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, seeking to close the primary elections. Idaho has had an open primary for the past 36 years, though there have been previous efforts to close it.

In this case, members of the Republican Party's conservative wing claim that crossover voting by Democrats and independents could dilute the party's role in selecting candidates, alter candidates' campaign message and help elect more moderate Republicans.

Troupis also contends that Idaho's open primary system violates the First Amendment right to free association. Troupis said the open primary forces party members to associate with nonmember voters who don't share the same enthusiasm for party rules, core interests or achieving party goals.

The party "wants to identify the persons who want to associate with the Idaho Republican Party as members of the party, and limit the participation in the selection of its candidates to members of the Party," Troupis wrote in court documents.

The state, joined by organizations representing independent voters, argues that the Republicans have yet to prove that alleged crossover voting has hurt or influenced outcomes at the ballot box.

Harry Kresky, an attorney representing independent voters, said Idaho independents would be harmed by having to publicly register with a party just to take part in an election. He has previously argued that a closed primary would close out a voting bloc that wouldn't want to register and makes up about a third of Idaho's electorate.

"There is simply no precedent for a political party dictating to a state the kind of primary a state should run to avoid free association" conflicts, Kresky said.

Winmill did not indicate when he will rule.

The party's drive to close its primary has driven a wedge in the state GOP and was blamed by some for the ouster of former GOP Chairman Kirk Sullivan. Last summer at the state Republican convention in Sandpoint, a conservative band of delegates mustered enough votes to remove Sullivan, who opposed closing the primary, and replace him with Norm Semanko.

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and some other high-profile Republicans backed Sullivan during the power struggle and denounced the effort to close the primary, saying the current system has helped the GOP maintain its grip on the state Legislature, all top elected state offices and three of four congressional seats.

Despite a vote by convention delegates to keep the open primary, the state GOP Central Committee has continued to pursue its closed primary agenda.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Eye On Boise

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