Idaho’s closed primary election is a situation that cries out for remedy

Significant conflicts with the larger public interest happen when a party calls on the state to manage its avowedly private business, writes guest columnist George Moses.

April 18, 2023 4:00 am
Voters fill out their ballots at a polling place at the College Church of the Nazarene

Voters fill out their ballots at a polling place at the College Church of the Nazarene on the Northwest Nazarene University campus in Nampa on Nov. 8, 2022. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Use of a “closed” primary election has deprived large numbers of Idaho’s residents of full participation in our electoral process. This exclusion is based on the misapplication of the right to free association. It is a situation that cries out for remedy.

The right to private free association is unassailable. Individual citizens may lawfully associate themselves however and with whomever they choose. But when those associations enter the public sphere and are financed with public money, they ought to be constrained to protect the rights of every other citizen.

It is unarguable that a political party’s nomination is a valuable asset in a campaign for public office. Since it is the party’s asset to bestow, it is certainly within any party’s rights to use whatever means it wishes to bestow it. Nothing in law or principle prevents that.

An open primary does not in any sense challenge private freedom of association. Each party remains the sole judge of its membership. If the party wants to exclude non-members from its purely private meetings and functions, it is free to do so.

If exclusivity is a party’s desire, it can manage its nominating process at its own expense and in ways that provide that exclusivity. Several such means exist. It was not so long ago that one major party in Idaho did exactly that, using a system of party caucuses that had no effect on the state budget. That process, among others, remains an option for any political party in Idaho.

But significant conflicts with the larger public interest happen when a party calls on the state to manage its avowedly private business.

The legitimacy of elected government in a democracy rests on the bedrock of the fullest possible citizen participation. The notion of excluding any otherwise qualified voter from an election whose purpose is to produce elected officials should horrify any advocate of democracy. The private right of association cannot and should not be used to reserve parts of the sacred electoral process to one set of the citizens to the exclusion of others.

Any electoral contest for public office, conducted by the state with public resources, must be open to all citizens. With the entry of public administration a political party’s primary election now becomes, not just a private affair, but part and parcel of the basic electoral system. Party primaries that exclude large parts of the electorate convert what should be a public exercise of democratic functions into private events conducted under color of public business. They go beyond being pure exercises of free association. In fact, they become a means of barring a significant part of the electorate from a key step in the electoral process. And by that exclusion, they encourage political extremism.

The simple principle is this. No registered voter should be excluded from voting in any public electoral contest in which he or she has met the state’s basic and jurisdictional qualifications for voting. Any other requirement is an offense against true democratic government.

Remedies to this very antidemocratic situation are few.  Sitting legislators were elected under these rules. Those thus elected see little reason for change. The courts had their opportunity to deal with this conflict. The result amounted to a swing and a miss.

The only feasible cure remaining is a citizen initiative.  It was such an initiative that created Idaho’s much admired independent redistricting commission over the vociferous objections of the Legislature. That cure appears to be the last route left for redress of this miscarriage of policy that so deeply infects Idaho’s political life.


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George Moses
George Moses

George Moses is a former Air Force officer, Vietnam veteran, congressional aide and Idaho redistricting commissioner. He has been in and around elective politics for over five decades and has worked in political campaigns at levels from school board to president.