Much is at stake in Idaho’s May 15 primary election, from hotly contested county races to every seat in the Legislature. Because Republicans so completely dominate state politics, many of those races will be decided in the primary.
But this year, for the first time, only registered Republicans can vote in the Republican primary – and more than a third of Idaho’s voters identify themselves as independents. Add to that primaries that draw low turnouts, redistricting that’s added to voter confusion by shifting many into different districts with unfamiliar candidates, and the lack of a presidential primary, since both state parties already handled that with caucuses, and “you could have a weak fringe candidate win in a primary like that,” said Jim Weatherby, Boise State University emeritus professor of public policy and longtime Idaho political observer.
Efforts are under way to inform voters and encourage greater turnout, including state-funded billboards, ads and posters, and extra poll-worker training. But if few heed that call, political convulsions could result, potentially sealing the fate of longtime lawmakers or giving an avowed white supremacist a shot at becoming the elected sheriff of Bonner County.
“The conventional wisdom is that low turnout in a primary benefits the more activist voters, who tend to be more ideological,” Weatherby said. “The expectation is that ultraconservatives will do fairly well.”
Gretchen Hellar, a former mayor of Sandpoint and a founding member of the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force, called it “extremely important” for county residents to vote in the primary, and not leave all the decisions to a few highly motivated partisans. The candidacy of white supremacist Shaun Winkler means Bonner County residents “need to make a big statement that this is not what we are,” she said. “And we aren’t. I’m betting you that he’s going to get very, very few votes.”
She said, “I know a lot of people who consider themselves independent who are going to register and vote Republican this time.”
Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said, “In most of the counties, most of the races are in the Republican primary.”
In Kootenai County, for example, there’s not a single Democrat running for any county office. But there are hot races in progress, with five Republicans vying for one county commissioner seat, three for another, and three for sheriff.
There also are sharply contested races for several of the county’s legislative seats, and while Democrats also are running, in this year’s primary they’re all unopposed.
On the Democratic primary ballot in Kootenai County, “for the county candidates, there’s just a write-in line, no candidates,” said county elections chief Carrie Phillips.
She said poll-worker training this year includes advice about how to handle voters who get to the voting booth and then change their mind about their party. “Once the person receives their ballot, they cannot change their party,” Phillips said. “So somebody might get to the booth that has a Democratic ballot, and might say, ‘Well, there’s no one on here – I don’t want to vote this one, I want to have a different one.’ Well, unfortunately, we can’t change it.”
Bonner County Clerk Marie Scott is expecting a considerably lower turnout than the usual presidential-year primary. “People are angry about having to affiliate with a party,” she said. “They are very angry about that.”
Plus, she cited another change that’s new for Idaho primary voters this year: no presidential race to vote on. Both Idaho Republicans and Idaho Democrats held their presidential nominating votes at caucuses this year, so the state eliminated its traditional presidential primary vote.
Scott said Bonner County typically has 37 percent of registered voters turn out for a presidential primary. “I guess I will be pleased if we show 20 to 23 percent turnout,” she said.
Statewide, Idaho’s primary election turnout was 25 percent of registered voters in 2008, 27 percent in 2004 and 33 percent in 2000.
In Kootenai County, county Clerk Cliff Hayes is figuring on roughly 25 percent turnout – up from 21 percent in 2008, mainly because of the contested local and legislative races.
Mary Heston, a first-time Republican candidate for the state Senate from Kellogg, said many of the voters she’s met as she campaigned have said they won’t vote because they don’t want to be publicly identified as either a Republican or a Democrat.
Bonnie Douglas, a League of Women Voters state board member, staffed a voter information table at a recent community event in Coeur d’Alene and heard questions from confused voters about everything from residency requirements for college students to the new closed-primary rules.
“In our county, we only have Republican candidates for the county offices. … If you’re independent or if you’re in a third party, or if you’re a Democrat, you can’t vote,” she said. “So it seems to people that their votes are, you know, not important. And yet those jobs are the most important jobs in their county.”
Douglas, a former Democratic state representative, said that when she visited the county elections office to pick up absentee ballot request forms for the event, “A woman came in and said, ‘I hear I have to register as a Republican to vote for the commissioners.’ She sounded upset about it – she was loud.”
Ysursa said he was confronted at a recent community event in Boise by a longtime resident who said she’s always voted, but said, “I think it’s an invasion of my privacy for people to know what party’s ballot I voted, and I’m not going to vote.”
Ysursa said he told her he hoped she’d reconsider.
“Participation is the essence of democracy … and we hope it doesn’t have a diminishing effect on our turnout,” he said. “We’ll see.”
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