BOISE – A federal judge appeared dubious Thursday of a group of dissident Idaho Republicans’ attempt to force the closure of the state’s GOP primary elections to anyone but registered Republicans.
The party’s leadership hasn’t joined the suit and favors legislative changes rather than a lawsuit.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Mikel Williams asked pointed questions of Christ Troupis, the lawyer for the 72 dissident Republicans, in court Thursday as he heard arguments from the state to dismiss the case.
The state said the dissidents lack the right to sue when the party itself chose against it, even though both the state party platform and a party rule approved last June call for closed primaries. But Troupis warned that if the system is left unchanged, chaos will ensue – including possible lawsuits from his group against GOP nominees who win in the May primary, seeking to kick them off the ballot.
“We’re going to have lawsuits and challenges to the candidates who are elected and nominated in the primaries and their ability to run as Republican candidates, and that includes a candidate for the United States Senate,” Troupis said after the court hearing. “We could throw the whole question of Idaho’s senator into question.”
During the arguments, the judge asked Troupis, “But doesn’t an association have to embody the collective will of its members? Otherwise you have 70 members, you have 70 different views.”
He noted the party’s leadership had indicated it wants to seek legislation. “We also have to accept the reality that the Legislature and the governor’s office are controlled by the Republican Party,” the judge said. “It seems like the prospects might be favorable.”
Troupis said waiting for the Legislature to change the laws about Idaho’s open primary elections would put the state “on a collision course with a disaster in May,” when the state has primary elections scheduled on May 27. He noted that lawmakers had a proposal last year but didn’t act. “My clients would prefer a legislative solution if we had any confidence that it would occur,” he told the court.
The dissident Republicans, who include 15 North Idaho residents led by state central committee members John Cross, Ruthie Johnson and Ron Vieselmeyer, sued Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, the state’s chief election official and himself a Republican, to challenge Idaho’s current system, which lets voters choose which party’s ballot they’d like to vote when they arrive at the polls. Idaho has no party registration.
Deputy Idaho Attorney General Karin Jones told the court that the plaintiffs “are attempting to enforce their preference on the Republican Party.” She said, “This is really at heart an intra-party dispute, not a constitutional challenge over which court would have jurisdiction.” The dispute, she said, is “over voters who identify themselves as Republican but who are not, in the eyes of these parties, not Republican enough.”
The judge promised a decision “shortly.” Rod Beck, lead plaintiff, said afterward, “The case law is with us. I think the state is trying to incorrectly posit this as an intra-party squabble when it’s not.”
John Foster, Idaho Democratic Party executive director, sat through the arguments and had this reaction: “I think it’s abundantly clear how fractured and troubled the Republican Party is in this state. Our primaries will always stay open, even if we have to take legal action to assure that.”
A third of Idahoans identify themselves as independents and not members of any party.
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