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Idaho House Republicans pass bills to move up election deadline, criminalize ballot collection

UPDATED: Mon., Feb. 21, 2022

By Ryan Suppe Idaho Statesman

BOISE – The Idaho House on Monday passed two election bills – including one that would create a new deadline for the state’s more than 300,000 unaffiliated voters to participate in closed Republican primary elections.

House members also passed a bill that would make it illegal to carry a ballot belonging to someone outside their household.

The House narrowly approved the primary election bill as political pundits have recently called for independents and Democrats to register as Republicans so they can vote in the 2022 GOP primary. The Idaho Republican Party hosts closed primary elections, meaning only registered Republicans can vote in primaries.

House Bill 439 strikes current state law that allows unaffiliated voters to choose a party affiliation up to the day of a primary election. Instead, unaffiliated voters would have the same deadline as partisan voters to register with a party prior to a primary.

This year, the deadline for partisan voters is March 11, more than two months before the May 17 election.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Doug Okuniewicz, a Hayden Republican, and Sen. Mary Souza, a Coeur d’Alene Republican who is running for secretary of state. Okuniewicz said it’s about “consistency, simplification of our election laws and fairness.”

But opponents said the bill, which the GOP-dominated House approved by just four votes, would “disenfranchise” many unaffiliated voters.

Rep. John Gannon, a Boise Democrat, noted that March 11 is the last day of a two-week filing period for declaring candidacies in the primary. Forcing unaffiliated voters to decide that soon which candidates to support “isn’t fair,” Gannon said.

“On that last day, the unaffiliated voters don’t know who the candidates are going to be,” he said.

Rep. Lori McCann, a Lewiston Republican, also said the bill would “disenfranchise many of our voters.”

“If you look at how many unaffiliated voters there are in the state of Idaho, I think that we are making a mistake to close that door that quickly,” McCann said.

About 310,000 Idaho voters are unaffiliated, according to data from the Idaho secretary of state’s office. That’s more than twice the number of registered Democrats.

Multiple House members said Monday that many unaffiliated voters in Idaho identify as conservatives and could be blocked from voting in this year’s GOP primary. The bill has an emergency clause and would take effect immediately upon passage.

While the bill would alter state code dealing with affiliation changes, parties themselves dictate which voters can participate in their primary elections. The Idaho Democratic Party hosts open primaries, meaning all voters, regardless of their affiliation, can vote in the party’s primary.

Republicans allow only registered Republicans to vote in their primary elections – that change came in 2011. The party platform says, “To allow those who have no loyalty or allegiance to the Idaho Republican Party or its platform and resolutions to select our candidates is simply not proper.”

If the bill passes, first-time voters could still record their affiliation and receive a Republican or Democratic ballot on election day.

GOP primary bill seeks to stop ‘gaming’ of the system

Rep. Julianne Young, a Blackfoot Republican, defended the bill Monday. She said the purpose of a party primary is to choose a candidate who “represents the values of that party platform.”

“If an individual is unsure about whether they align with that party platform, then they may not be the right voter to be selecting the candidate to represent those values,” Young said. “Those individuals that align with the values of the party will be affiliated.”

During a committee hearing last week, Okuniewicz said the bill is meant to stop a “very small minority” of unaffiliated voters from “gaming the system” in primary elections. Paige Armstrong – Rep. Randy Armstrong’s wife, who was filling in for her husband – asked Okuniewicz to explain what he meant.

Some unaffiliated voters “decide whether to vote Democrat or Republican from one election to the next, depending on wherever they think they’re going to have the most impact,” Okuniewicz said.

In Republican-dominated Idaho, the winners of GOP primaries for statewide positions usually go on to win general elections. In recent months, the Idaho 97 Project, an anti-extremism and anti-disinformation nonprofit, and political pundits have called on independents and Democrats to register as Republicans to vote in the GOP primary this year.

“I know there are Idahoans who would not feel comfortable leaving the Democratic primary, and I respect that, but they might also think about where they can have the greatest impact on Idaho’s future,” former Boise State University President Bob Kustra wrote in a September column in the Idaho Statesman.

House also passes ‘ballot harvesting’ bill

The House on Monday also passed a bill that would make it illegal to take someone else’s ballot to the post office. Family or household members, such as roommates, would be able to collect up to six ballots at a time.

House Bill 547, sponsored by House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, a Republican from Star, would limit ballot handling to election officials, mail carriers and family or household members, and make it a misdemeanor for someone to get caught with another voter’s ballot. Someone paid to collect ballots by anyone other than the voter, or caught with more than 10 ballots, would face a felony.

The bill is based on the 2005 recommendations of the bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform.

“In Idaho, voting should be easy, but in Idaho, cheating should be hard,” Moyle said.

The house passed the bill on a nearly party-line vote. Republican Reps. Marc Gibbs, of Grace; Gary Marshall, of Idaho Falls; and Fred Wood, of Burley, voting against it.

Boise Democrat Rep. Colin Nash said the Idaho Council on Developmental Disabilities opposes the bill because people with disabilities may have trouble getting assistance to vote. It may also conflict with the Voting Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, the council contends.

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, a Boise Democrat, said she often helps people with mobility issues deliver their ballots to election offices.

She said those are “legitimate, legal voters,” and she has never heard of a case of ballot harvesting in Idaho.

“I don’t think we should be making crimes out of things that aren’t bad,” Rubel said. “In fact, I really don’t think we should be making good deeds into crimes.”

Both election bills now head to the Senate.

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