Open and Shut

Idaho's open primaries could face changes


Time isn't on its side, but a measure now receiving serious consideration in the Idaho Legislature's final days would fundamentally change Idaho elections.

Lawmakers are now half-heartedly reviewing a measure that would change Idaho's open primary system--in which anyone can vote in whatever primary they want--to a "modified closed" primary in which voters have to choose a party in order to to participate in the primary. Independents would, the measure dictates, be allowed to vote in the primary of their choice.

But early this week, although the measure had been printed, and appeared to have the support of Idaho's majority Republicans, it was not exactly on a fast track.

"One thing is clear: The people don't want it," said Sen. Denton Darrington, a Declo Republican who voted to have the measure printed for further debate. "I truly don't know what will happen."

The measure is being pushed by The Common Interest, a nonpartisan think tank with more than 1,000 members. Led by former Harvard professor Keith Allred of Twin Falls, the group has taken up election reform as a major issue this year. Allred has also garnered the support of Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa.

But the people who would actually have to wrangle with new voter laws aren't so keen on the idea. County clerks told the lawmakers Monday that they wanted them to take it slow.

Although the measure has $250,000 attached as funding to help implement the new registration requirements, preliminary calculations indicate Ada County alone could tap that reserve quickly.

Because Ada County is switching to a more modern optical-scan voting system to replace its old punch-card voting machines (BW, News, "You've Punched Your Last," 11/16/2006), printing ballot pages just got more expensive, from 8 cents per page to 36 cents per page, according to Phil McGrane, with Ada County's elections division. Ada County has about 200,000 registered voters, he said, and the county would most likely have to print three primary ballots--one if they are voting Republican, another if they're Democrats, and a third if they register as an independent. That scenario alone would eat up most of the budget.

"There's going to be some headaches, but the cost is the real burden," McGrane said.

Among the incentives for lawmakers to close up Idaho's primaries: it might help them avoid a lawsuit. According to an opinion by the Attorney General's Office, Idaho is vulnerable to a lawsuit by Republican Party activists who want to close primaries. Keeping them open, the state's attorneys said, would violate a person's First Amendment right to free association.

Rod Beck, a GOP activist, helped draft his party's push for closed primaries, which was endorsed by the party. GOP Chairman Kirk Sullivan is pushing Allred's bill as a solution.

Democrats oppose the measure so far. Sen. Clint Stennett, the minority leader in the Senate, said forcing voters to identify their party affiliation in Republican-dominated Idaho could create some uncomfortable situations. Richard Stallings, the chairman of the party, had a conflicting message on the concept.

"I personally think it's a pretty good proposal," Stallings told BW. But in a news release sent out later that day, Stallings said the party's position was to oppose the measure.