New coalition seeks to end Idaho’s closed primary elections
Idahoans for Open Primaries will attempt to qualify a ballot initiative for the November 2024 election
Former Republican Speaker of the Idaho House Bruce Newcomb is among the first to sign the Idahoans for Open Primaries initiative. (Courtesy of Ashley Prince and Idahoans For Open Primaries)
Organizers with Reclaim Idaho have teamed up with several other organizations to file a ballot initiative for the 2024 general election that is designed to replace Idaho’s closed primary elections with open primaries that any Idaho voter could participate in, regardless of political affiliation.
The initiative would also change Idaho general elections by creating a new instant runoff — also known as ranked choice — voting system.
The new coalition, called Idahoans for Open Primaries, represents a collaboration between the Idaho Task Force of Veterans for Political Innovation, North Idaho Women, Represent US Idaho, the Hope Coalition and Reclaim Idaho. Members of the Idahoans for Open Primaries coalition filed the initiative Tuesday morning at the Idaho State Capitol in Boise.
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Supporters of the open primary initiative oppose the Idaho Republican Party’s closed primary election, which is only open to Idaho voters who file paperwork affiliating with the Idaho Republican Party.
“This is a simple, common-sense reform that will give us better elections and better leadership,” former Republican Speaker of the Idaho House Bruce Newcomb said in a written statement provided to the Idaho Capital Sun. Newcomb was one of the first 20 people to sign the open primary initiative petition.
In 2011, the Idaho Legislature passed a law, House Bill 351, closing Idaho’s primary elections. Even though the law closed primary elections, it also gave the leaders of political parties the ability to choose to keep their primaries open, and the Idaho Democratic Party opened its primary elections to all registered voters.
Karole Honas, a longtime eastern Idaho television anchor who retired in 2020 after 30 years with Local News 8, is supporting the signature gathering drive and serving as a spokesperson for the effort.
Honas, who is a Bingham County voter, said the closed primary law backs voters in a corner. Bingham County is a conservative community and agriculture hotspot that has consistently elected Republicans for decades. The closed primary is the election that essentially decides who will represent Bingham County voters and their neighbors in government.
As a journalist, Honas wanted to remain neutral and independent. But the closed primary forced her to choose between remaining neutral and affiliating with a political party in order to vote in the primary. Honas said several of her friends and neighbors felt the same pressure; they wanted to remain independent for one reason or another but did not want to miss out on crucial primary elections that shape the future of their communities.
“In Bingham County, if I wanted to vote, I had to vote in the Republican primary because that was the only game in town,” Honas told the Idaho Capital Sun in a telephone interview. “It didn’t feel right.”
Honas believes opening up the primary will force candidates to consider the perspectives of a broader group of voters in order to win an election. She also said the change will bring independents into the primary process. Under the proposed initiative, the top four voter-getters would advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.
“I think it will bring more voters to the table, and I like the idea of the top four going on to the general election,” Honas said. “I think there is a good chance we will get better leaders.”
Hyrum Erickson, a Republican precinct committeeman from Rexburg, has committed to collecting signatures for the open primary initiative, according to a press release issued by Idahoans for Open Primaries leaders.
Precinct committee positions in Idaho are elected by party from each voting precinct in the state. The precinct committeemen help the party with voter registration and get out the vote efforts, are involved with party leadership at the county level and help elect candidates. (Precinct committeemen and precinct committeeman are the terms used in Idaho law to describe the positions, but the positions can be held by anybody, not just men.)
“Our current primary system incentivizes candidates to demonize people who disagree with them rather than focus on solving problems,” Erickson said in a written statement.
What would the new open primary ballot initiative do?
The new open primary initiative is designed to fundamentally change elections in Idaho.
If it qualifies for the ballot and is approved by a majority of voters, the open primary initiative would do away with the closed primary system. In its place, the initiative would create a “top four” primary election where all candidates run against each other in the same primary election, and the top four vote-getters would advance to the general election in November.
Procedures for the general election would also change to include a new instant runoff process, which is also commonly referred to as ranked choice voting.
Here’s how that would work:
During the general election, Idaho voters would vote for their first choice of candidate. Voters would also have the ability to rank the other candidates in order of preference. If no candidate won more than 50% of the first-choice votes, a process of elimination based on voters’ ballot rankings would begin. The candidate who finished last would be eliminated, and their share of the votes would instead go to the candidate whom the voter had ranked second-choice on the ballot. The process would repeat until one candidate received more than 50% of the votes. That candidate would be declared the winner.
The new open primary initiative in Idaho is similar to a successful Alaska ballot initiative that Alaska voters approved during the 2020 election.
If the ballot initiative passes, Idaho would join Maine and Alaska as the third state to offer instant runoff or ranked choice voting.
Idaho lawmakers tried to preempt ranked choice voting
A supermajority in the Idaho Legislature already passed a law, House Bill 179, during the 2023 legislative session that prohibits ranked choice voting or instant runoff voting in local, statewide and federal elections.
If the ballot initiative is approved, it would repeal House Bill 179. That could set off a showdown with the Republican-controlled Idaho Legislature in the courts or in the Idaho Statehouse.
Idahoans for Open Primaries coalition members submitted the first 20 signatures and the full text of the proposed ballot initiative to the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office on Tuesday morning.
Next, officials from the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office and Idaho Attorney General’s Office will review the initiative, and the Idaho Attorney General’s Office may recommend revisions or alterations, which Idahoans For Open Primaries organizers can either accept or reject.
Once the review process is complete and the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office presents official ballot titles for the initiative, members of Idahoans for Open Primaries can begin gathering signatures for the initiative. Organizers backing the open primary initiative said they expect that to happen in June, and are beginning to plan signature gathering kickoff events in every region of the state for this summer.
What is a ballot initiative and what does it take to qualify for an election in Idaho?
A ballot initiative is a form of direct democracy where the people propose a new law independently from the Idaho Legislature. In a 2021 ruling, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled that the initiative and referendum process are “fundamental rights, reserved to the people of Idaho.”
Before an initiative can appear on the ballot for the voters of Idaho to decide on, it first must qualify for the election. In order to qualify, organizers of a ballot initiative must gather the signatures of at least 6% of registered voters statewide, and the signatures of at least 6% of voters in at least 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts.
That means Idahoans for Open Primaries organizers will need to gather signatures from at least 62,895 voters statewide by May 1, 2024, and will need to meet the 6% requirement in at least 18 legislative districts, in order to qualify for the November 2024 election, which is also the presidential election.
If the open primary ballot initiative receives enough signatures to qualify for the November 2024 election, it would take a simple majority — more than 50% — of voters to approve a change to Idaho’s law.
Organizers with Reclaim Idaho will help with the signature gathering effort. The nonpartisan, nonprofit organization has mobilized more than 1,000 volunteers across the state to gather signatures and push for approval of two recent Idaho ballot initiatives: the successful 2018 Medicaid expansion, which 60.6% of Idaho voters approved, and the Quality Education Act in 2022, which Reclaim Idaho pulled from the ballot after the Idaho Legislature took action that would have repealed and replaced the Quality Education Act. Some political observers and Democratic legislators have credited that campaign by Reclaim Idaho with pushing the Idaho Legislature to increase education funding by an amount nearly identical to what was proposed for the ballot initiative.
Will the Idaho Legislature oppose or be able to repeal the open primary initiative?
The open primary ballot initiative is designed to repeal the 2023 law that bans instant runoff or ranked choice voting. But, the Idaho Legislature could turn around and pass another law that immediately repeals the open primary initiative — going against the will of voters.
It’s almost certain some Republican lawmakers will try to push back.
The 2023 law prohibiting ranked choice voting or instant runoff elections passed nearly along party lines (56-12 in the Idaho House and 28-7 in the Idaho Senate). Only three Republicans — Reps. Dustin Manwaring, R-Pocatello, Rick Cheatum, R-Pocatello, and Jack Nelsen, R-Jerome — joined the Democrats in opposing the law.
When he presented House Bill 179 to the Idaho Legislature’s House State Affairs Committee on March 2, Rep. Dale Hawkins, R-Fernwood, said his bill was designed to prevent bringing ranked choice voting into Idaho and to preserve the existing system in Idaho.
“This is a voting system that is being spread around the country I would say a little like a virus,” Hawkins told legislators. “It’s destabilizing people’s normal voting abilities and it’s, according to the people in some of these states, very harmful. But everywhere it goes, it seems to do a little bit of confusion to the voter,” Hawkins said.
“I still think that our system of election here in Idaho is one vote, one man and I am seeking to preserve that,” Hawkins added.
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