Idaho Republicans are planning to introduce a party registration system for voters in primary elections. The proposed legislation comes after a federal judge sided with Republicans in ruling that Idaho's open primary election system violates their constitutional right to freely assemble.
Republicans could introduce the new party registration and closed primary format in the next week, according to Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who was on the losing end of the court ruling. Ysursa also said he wasn't surprised by the court decision.
The court ruling struck down Idaho's open primary system, in which voters don't register with a party, but can only cast primary ballots for candidates in one party. The state GOP wants to switch to a closed primary, in which voters would need to register as Republicans to vote for Republican primary candidates.
According to the Center for Voting and Democracy, 26 states have closed primaries, 15 have open primaries, with the rest of the U.S. states have a combination of the two or a different primary election system.
“The current primary system in Idaho imposes a severe burden on the Idaho Republican Party’s First Amendment rights,” U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill wrote in a decision Wednesday. “Accordingly, this Court must deem the current Idaho primary system unconstitutional.”
Winmill ruled that changing Idaho's primary system could add costs to Idaho's elections and prevent people from keeping their party affiliation private, but that those issues aren't compelling enough to burden the state GOP's rights.
Idaho Republican Party Executive Director Jonathan Parker said he's been working on legislation for closed primaries, and wants to get legislative leaders, Ysursa and Gov. Butch Otter on board to get the plan in place. He said the goal is to approve a closed primary plan this legislative session so that it would be in place for the May 2012 primary elections.
Without a new primary plan, Parker said that the GOP precinct chairs could decide which legislative candidates would appear on the general election ballot next November, since Winmill ruled the current system is unconstitutional.
Winmill wrote that experts brought in by Ysursa, college professors Andrew Martin of Washington University in St. Louis and Kyle Saunders of Colorado State University, showed that Idaho's open primary system leads to crossover voting, when someone who sides with one party votes in another party's primary, which could harm the Idaho GOP.
“Especially in a one-party state like Idaho where the Republican Party primaries are in most cases the ‘only game in town,’ voters do likely cross over; they have to in order to have any meaningful influence in elections,” Martin and Saunders wrote.
The college professors also wrote that closed primaries could lead to more ideologically extreme candidates, but Winmill said that falls within the GOP's rights. “Choosing ideologically extreme candidates is precisely what a political party is entitled to do in asserting its right of association under the First Amendment,” Winmill wrote.
Ysursa, who said he favors the current open primary system, said he has practical concerns about switching to closed primaries. “You can say that you want party registration, but there's over 700,000 voters right now who aren't registered,” Ysursa said.
Ysursa has won three elections as a Republican for his job as secretary of state. He said that the state party, which sued his office to change the state primary law, still supports him, and that Idaho Republicans have done well with the open primary system.
“I don't believe the Republican Party has suffered — our election success is pretty remarkable,” Ysursa said. “We disagree on that issue, but the bottom line is to win elections.”
The full details of the closed primary plan aren't available, but it could let parties decide whether to let independent voters cast a ballot in a primary election. A recent survey by Boise State University found that 37 percent of respondents identified themselves as independents, which was higher than self-identified Republicans or Democrats.
Idaho Democratic Party Executive Director Shelley Landry said the party's main concern is making sure people can vote. “Whether the voter is a Democrat, Republican or Independent, we want to ensure they they get the right to participate,” Landry told IdahoReporter.com by e-mail.
College of Idaho political economy professor Jasper LiCalzi said many Idahoans consider themselves independents, even if they typically side with one party. He said those voters wouldn't want to be shut out of primary elections. “That's not going to be all that popular,” LiCalzi said.
LiCalzi agreed with the other college professors that closed primaries could lead to more ideologically extreme candidates. He said party registration roles, which would be public, could help candidates campaign. “It makes it easier for the politicians when it comes to elections,” he said, since candidates could target their mailing or door knocking to members of one party.
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