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News >  Idaho

Idaho voting participation is up 350% after party switches to primary

March 11, 2020 Updated Wed., March 11, 2020 at 7:43 p.m.

This Wednesday photo shows the Idaho Statehouse in Boise, Idaho, ahead of the state’s presidential primary. (Keith Ridler / AP)
This Wednesday photo shows the Idaho Statehouse in Boise, Idaho, ahead of the state’s presidential primary. (Keith Ridler / AP)

Participation in Idaho’s Democratic presidential primary increased more than 350% on Tuesday over the 2016 caucus, a turnout party officials say is the highest primary participation ever and a sign that switching systems was the right decision.

Lindsey Johnson, communications director for the Idaho State Democratic Party, said thousands more people who wouldn’t have been able to attend a caucus participated in the primary. In 2016, 23,938 people caucused statewide. On election night this year, about 107,000 people participated in the Democratic primary.

“We’re incredibly happy with it,” Johnson said.

Kootenai County saw similarly high turnout, with 8,973 voters participating compared to 2,056 who caucused in 2016, which is a 436% increase.

This election was Kootenai County Democratic Party Chair Laura Tenneson’s first chance to participate in an Idaho primary. She said she never participated in caucuses because her work schedule in the restaurant industry kept her from being able to spend several hours on a weeknight supporting her candidate.

“It excluded me from being able to participate in that process, so I’m really glad that Idaho made the decision to switch over from caucuses to a primary,” she said. “I think it does open up the opportunity for a lot more people to participate.”

While Democrats had record-breaking participation, fewer Republicans voted in their primary than participated in 2016.

Final results from the election showed about 118,000 people participated in the Republican presidential primary, about 111,000 of whom voted for President Donald Trump. Trump faced little competition for the Republican nomination, with former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld the highest-profile candidate.

In 2016, 13 nationally known candidates were on the ballot and nearly 160,000 people participated in the Republican primary. The biggest vote-getters were Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who won Idaho’s primary, Trump and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

The Democratic primary was open to both Democrats and unaffiliated voters, but Republicans have restricted their primaries to those affiliated with the party since 2012.

Tenneson said she believes the wider demographic that’s able to participate in a Democratic primary over a caucus may be what’s behind the state’s strong support for former Vice President Joe Biden.

“I definitely think it changed the dynamic of who was voting,” she said.

Biden won 4,857 votes in Kootenai County this year, and Sen. Bernie Sanders won 3,220, giving the former vice president more than an 18-point lead. Statewide, Biden won with 52,755 votes or almost 49%. Sanders was a little more than 6 points behind with 45,867 votes.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who is also still running for the Democratic nomination for president, won less than 1% of the votes in Idaho.

Tenneson said caucuses can be dominated by ardent supporters and activists, who are often younger voters, students or people with non-traditional work schedules. Older voters, or those who have tough work schedules and children at home, often can’t participate. That may have been a factor when Sanders won 78% of the vote in the 2016 caucuses.

Tenneson said Biden wasn’t her first choice, but she was glad to see a true representation of what Kootenai County and Idaho want in the results.

“Whether or not I agree with the outcome in the primary in Idaho, I think that having a primary versus a caucus shows a better representation of our community,” she said.

She said she hopes going forward that people who were disappointed with the results still show up for Democrats in November.

“Whether or not the nominee is your favorite candidate, I think it’s really important as a party we unite and get behind whoever the nominee ends up being so we can make sure we get a Democrat elected as president,” Tenneson said. “It’s going to take all of the Democrats supporting the nominee for that to happen.”

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