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Eye On Boise

Closed primary trial: Party makes case

The Idaho Republican Party finally got its chance Wednesday to make a case for scrapping the state's open primary, the AP reports, which they say allows Democratic voters to unfairly influence GOP politics and results at the ballot box. Click below for a full report on the first day of the closed-primary trial from AP reporter Todd Dvorak.

Idaho GOP argues for closing primary election
By TODD DVORAK, Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Republican Party finally got its chance Wednesday to make a case for scrapping the state's open primary, which they say allows Democratic voters to unfairly influence GOP politics and results at the ballot box.

The job of defending Idaho's 37-year-old system has put Secretary of State Ben Ysursa at odds with his own party's wishes. But in a state already dominated by the GOP, Ysursa questioned the merits of tinkering a system that's reaping Republican benefits.

Republicans already hold significant majorities in the Idaho House and Senate, as well as the state's top elected posts and three of four congressional seats.

"It may seem strange at times, but I think we're all managing to disagree in a civil manner," joked Ysursa, who at one point was seated in a courtroom bench next to Jonathan Parker, the party's executive director.

"My point is that Republicans in Idaho have been quite successful, and I don't really know what's broken that needs fixing," he said.

Currently, Idaho has an open primary, meaning voters can cast a ballot in any party they choose, a system similar to nonpartisan primaries in 20 other states.

Two years ago, members of the most conservative wing of the party convinced the state party to sue the state in a bid to close primary elections to only registered Republicans. They contended Democrats, Independents and members of other parties systematically cross party lines to influence primary outcomes.

Testimony Wednesday before U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill focused on a survey this year that questioned 400 voters who cast ballots in the 2008 primary. The poll was conducted by Moore Information Opinion Research, a firm that has been supplied campaign poll data for decades to many of the biggest names in Republican politics, including Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and former U.S. Senators Steve Symms and Dirk Kempthorne.

The survey found that 41 percent of those voters, or 195 respondents, identified themselves as non-GOP voters. Of those, 39 percent who identified themselves as Democrats or likely to vote for Democrats said they usually take part in Republican primaries.

Party lawyers argue crossover voters can effect outcomes in tight races and infringes on their First Amendment right to free association because the open primary lumps the GOP faithful in the same voting pool as nonmembers.

Party lawyers also contend the open system forces GOP candidates to moderate their message to cater to a broader spectrum of primary voters on issues ranging from abortion to gun control, to the role of the federal government.

"We want to make the party mean something," said Christ Troupis, a lawyer for the state party. "If we can close the system, Republicans will be forced to be more responsible to voters."

The open primary has caused a rift in the Republican party and was a key issue two years ago when delegates at the state party convention voted to oust Chairman Kirk Sullivan, who opposed the closed primary system and was blamed for not trying to resolve the dispute among the factions.

State lawyers defending Ysursa, teamed with attorneys for voting groups, including the New York-based Committee for a Unified Independent Party, focused on discrediting the conclusions and methodology of Moore's survey.

Defense attorneys tried to show the survey was designed specifically to make a case to support crossover voting but lacked convincing data to show any effect at the ballot box.

They also intend to present evidence showing that between 1994-2008, less than one-third of state legislative primary races were contested, with less than 10 percent of those decided by a vote difference of less than 10 percent.

The trial is scheduled to conclude Friday.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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