Idaho GOP adopts presidential caucus proposal, in case legislators don’t bring back primary

The Idaho Legislature eliminated the presidential primary election, forcing political parties to come up with contingency plans

By: - June 26, 2023 6:41 pm
Voters stand in line to vote at Middleton Middle School

The line to vote in the 2022 primary election at Middleton Middle School snaked through the gymnasium, through the foyer and out the door as voters waited up to an hour to cast their ballots. The Idaho GOP has opted to switch to a presidential caucus next March, if the Idaho Legislature doesn't reinstate the primary elections that it unintentionally removed in the 2023 legislative session. (Courtesy of Becky Swain)

The Idaho Republican State Central Committee voted Saturday to revert to a presidential caucus system for helping select the party’s presidential nominee — if the Idaho Legislature fails to reinstate the March presidential primary election that legislators eliminated earlier this year.

This weekend’s vote at the Idaho GOP summer meeting in Challis is the Idaho Republican Party’s response to a growing mess that leaves Idahoans uncertain of when or how they will vote in the 2024 presidential candidate nomination process. That process begins nationally in about seven months.

Meanwhile, the Idaho Democratic Party is set to vote Wednesday on a proposed resolution calling on the Idaho Legislature to reinstate the 2024 presidential primary elections, Idaho Democratic Party Communications Director Avery Roberts said.

On Saturday, the Idaho Republican State Central Committee “voted overwhelmingly” to approve Rule 2023-11, a presidential nominating caucus proposal, according to a press release issued by the Idaho Republican Party. The press release did not specify the tally of the votes for or against the rule.

Under Rule 2023-11, unless the Idaho Legislature reinstates the presidential primary election by Oct. 1, the Idaho Republican Party will hold a presidential caucus on the first Saturday in March of a presidential election year, beginning in 2024.

“The Idaho State Republican Party’s vote this weekend is a full on rejection of election gimmicks and a full 100% endorsement of a fair, transparent and open process,” Idaho GOP Chairwoman Dorothy Moon said in a written statement.

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A presidential caucus would be much different from the presidential primaries Idahoans are used to, where they have the option to vote in-person at their convenience throughout the day or instead by mailing in an absentee ballot or voting early.

For the Republican caucus, voters would have to participate in-person at a specific date and time at one of the specified venues within their county. Venues have yet to be secured and announced, and some counties may only use one venue.

“One key difference is primaries are run by state and local governments and generally paid for by the state or local government and involve voting on secret ballots, similar to how voters participate in other primary elections like state legislative primaries,” said Jaclyn Kettler, a political scientist at Boise State University.

“On the other hand, caucuses are run by the political parties themselves,” Kettler added. “Unlike primary elections, caucuses require voters to be physically present for the caucus at a specified time.”

There are no exceptions such as for active duty military members, work obligations, travel, illness and family caregiving; or for voters who live far from a county caucus site.

“In general, a lot of states are moving away from a caucus just because it does reduce turnout, they are complicated, and some states like Iowa have started using apps and things like that to make the counting process easier but even then, there were glitches in 2020,” Kettler said.

Idaho itself had presidential caucuses in the past. The Republican Party moved away from caucuses after conducting just one caucus in 2012. The Idaho Democratic Party moved away from caucuses after the 2016 presidential caucus, where many Ada County voters grew frustrated after having to wait in lines for hours to participate, Boise State Public Radio reported. 

After the Idaho Republican Party ditched the caucus system, participation in the primary increased dramatically in 2016. The Spokesman-Review reported that 44,672 people participated in the 2012 GOP presidential caucus. During the 2016 presidential primary, more than 225,000 voters cast ballots in the Republican presidential primary that year, according to the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office.

How did Idaho get into this mess?

The confusion started after the Idaho Legislature passed House Bill 138 and Gov. Brad Little signed it into law March 30. Secretary of State Phil McGrane and Rep. Dustin Manwaring, R-Pocatello, pitched the bill as a way to move the March presidential primary election to May, when other state elections are held, and save the state $2.7 million every four years.

But instead of moving the presidential primary election back to May, that new law eliminated the election altogether.

Legislators then adjourned for the year before acting on Senate Bill 1186, which was introduced late in the session to correct the presidential primary election problem.

With the state removing the presidential primary, political parties were left with the choice of holding a caucus, holding a variation of a caucus, or running and paying for their own primary election, McGrane previously told the Idaho Capital Sun.

Republicans chose the caucus route, although they also passed a different resolution that asks the Idaho Legislature to reconvene in special session and reinstate the March primary election by Oct. 1. If the Idaho Legislature does that (to date, no special session has been announced or called), Republicans would scrap their newly approved caucus proposal, according to the party’s rule.

Kettler said the situation creates uncertainty for voters and for county Republican officials, who must now begin planning for a presidential caucus that could take place in about eight months, but may not take place at all.

For local Republican county central committees who will have to organize one or more caucus venues, there is likely to be a significant expense. In 2012 and 2016, for instance, caucus venues included what is now known as ExtraMile Arena at Boise State University, the Boise Centre and the Morrison Center.

“It puts the county parties potentially in a pretty challenging position where they may need to start planning caucuses but not be entirely sure whether they are going to have them or not,” Kettler said. “For voters it also raises uncertainty. We’re still a ways out from March, but being confused about when you might be voting isn’t necessarily the greatest thing for voters who want to participate.”


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Clark Corbin
Clark Corbin

Clark Corbin has more than a decade of experience covering Idaho government and politics. He has covered every Idaho legislative session since 2011 gavel-to-gavel. Prior to joining the Idaho Capital Sun he reported for the Idaho Falls Post Register and Idaho Education News. His reporting in Idaho has helped uncover a multimillion-dollar investment scam and exposed inaccurate data that school districts submitted to the state.