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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Editorial: Current closed primary system dissuades Idaho voters

The minority rules.

Tuesday’s Idaho primary was but the latest reminder that a relatively small share of citizens will cast a ballot even with the state’s most important offices up for grabs, with little polling to discourage supporters of a candidate with better odds of drawing a bighorn ram hunting permit.

The statewide turnout was about 25 percent, which is consistent with figures for the last decade. In Kootenai County, with the third largest total of registered voters – 69,000 – less than 22 percent trooped to the polls despite some sharply contested races.

And, with the exception of a very few races, the primaries will determine who will hold office in 2015. Overwhelming Republican numbers give Democrats little chance in November except in scattered strongholds, although the gubernatorial election could be interesting given the low enthusiasm for a third Butch Otter term and the wealth, experience and name recognition – at least in Ada County – of Democratic opponent A.J. Balukoff.

Retiring Secretary of State Ben Ysursa says low turnout has been a frustration of his throughout his 40 years of service, 12 in the office he will surrender at year-end. He, like others, attributed the poor numbers to the fact that the primary is closed, which means voters must choose a party affiliation before they get a ballot.

He tried to change the system, only to be challenged in federal court by the Republican Party, which in 2011 convinced the judge an open primary would interfere with their right to freely assemble. The Idaho Legislature quickly cemented the present process into place.

Of Ysursa’s would-be successors, only Phil McGrane expressed dissatisfaction with the system, which he too said might be among the reasons so few Idahoans go to the polls. He said he would look at ways to boost turnout, but as second-place finisher to winner Lawrence Denney, he will not have that opportunity.

Washington Republicans and Democrats wanted to have their private parties, too. When a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a California case effectively blocked the blanket primary both sides hated, they spent years trying to find a way around that decision, and a 2004 initiative vote that created the top-two system in place today.

They lost, Washington votes won: Primary turnouts have ranged north of 40 percent. Still a minority.

Even a party stalwart like Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers now allows that top-two might be a way out of the internecine warfare that has pushed the Republican Party further right and out of contention for the increasing share of voters that identify themselves as independent. The jump in Idaho voter participation in general elections – to 60 percent-plus – shows there’s a big reservoir of citizens who might cast a ballot if the present primary system did not disenfranchise them.

Americans are abysmally negligent about exercising their right to vote. Idaho’s poor turnout Tuesday was not unique. And both parties have conspired to rig the game, voter ID being the latest twist.

Maybe independents should hold a primary.