Idahoans for Open Primaries to begin ballot initiative signature drive Saturday

Coalition has until May 1 to gather and turn in about 63,000 Idaho voters’ signatures

By: - August 17, 2023 4:43 pm
Idahoans for Open Primaries

Judy Labrie is a volunteer with Idahoans for Open Primaries in Sandpoint supporting the new ballot initiative. (Courtesy of Idahoans for Open Primaries)

Idahoans for Open Primaries is starting its signature collection drive Saturday in hopes that a ballot initiative to end Idaho’s closed primary election will qualify to go before voters in the November 2024 general election.

Signature gathering drives kick off at 9 a.m. local time at Kristen Armstrong Park in Boise and at Matchwood Brewing in Sandpoint, according to a press release issued Thursday by Idahoans for Open Primaries.

Former Chief Justice of the Idaho Supreme Court Jim Jones will speak about the ballot initiative at the Boise kickoff event, Idahoans for Open Primaries said.

Organizers are also scheduling upcoming signature gathering events in 30 other Idaho towns, Idahoans for Open Primaries said.

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How would the ballot initiative change Idaho’s elections?

The ballot initiative is designed to end Idaho’s closed primary election law, which stipulates political parties don’t have to let voters who are not affiliated with their party vote in their primary elections. 

Instead, the ballot initiative would replace the closed party primary elections with a single primary election that all voters and all candidates would participate in, regardless of party affiliation. The top four vote-getters from the primary election would then advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. 

The ballot initiative would also change Idaho’s general election by implementing a ranked-choice or instant runoff system of voting. Under that system, voters would vote for their favorite candidate and have the option to rank the remaining candidates in order of their preference on their same ballot. If one candidate does not win a majority of votes, then the candidate with the fewest votes would be eliminated and their votes would instead be transferred to the second choice of candidate marked on those voters’ ballots. That process would continue until one candidate has a majority of votes and is elected the winner. 

“The coalition is critical of Idaho’s closed primary elections, which block independent voters from participating in elections unless they join a political party,” Idahoans for Open Primaries said in a written statement Thursday. “The Open Primaries Initiative, which the group intends to place on the November 2024 ballot, would create a non-partisan primary system that is open to all voters regardless of party affiliation.”

If primary initiative passes, it would repeal 2023 bill passed by the Legislature

Earlier this year, the Idaho Legislature passed House Bill 179, which prohibits instant runoff and ranked-choice voting in Idaho. If the open primary ballot initiative passes, it would repeal that law. 

Some prominent Idaho Republicans have come out against the ballot initiative and cited House Bill 179 as a reason why. 

“The people of Idaho’s elected representatives enacted a statutory defense of ‘one person, one vote,’” Idaho Republican Party Chairwoman Dorothy Moon wrote in a written statement released May 3. “Now a leftist group is bringing this initiative to repeal ‘one person, one vote’ and replace it with a complicated scheme of ranked multi-voting, where voters choose multiple candidates and their votes are tabulated in a hidden process. This method favors Democrats where it has been used.”

In a May 2 tweet, Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador wrote, in part, “Let’s defeat these bad ideas coming from liberal outside groups.”

Idahoans for Open Primaries allege that Labrador’s tweet is evidence of a personal bias against the initiative, and Labrador’s tweet was discussed at length during an Idaho Supreme Court hearing on Aug. 7. 

What does it take to qualify a ballot initiative in Idaho?

In Idaho, a ballot initiative is a form of direct democracy where the people vote on whether to pass a proposed law, completely independent of the Idaho Legislature. 

But in order for a ballot initiative to go before voters, supporters have to meet signature gathering requirements. 

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Idahoans for Open Primaries has until May 1 to turn in signatures from 6% of registered voters statewide and 6% of voters in 18 of the state’s 35 legislative districts. To meet the 6% statewide threshold, supporters must gather about 63,000 signatures.

If the ballot initiative qualifies for the November 2024 general election, it would take a simple majority to approve it. 

Idahoans for Open Primaries is starting its signature drive after the Idaho Supreme Court threw out ballot titles for the initiative written by Labrador and ordered Labrador to write new ones

The ballot titles are important because they describe to the public and voters what the initiative is and what the initiative does. 

Idaho law requires the Idaho Attorney General’s Office to review ballot initiatives and assign  ballot titles, and Idahoans for Open Primaries argued that Labrador’s original ballot titles were inaccurate and misleading.

The new short ballot title reads, “Measure to (1) replace voter selection of party nominees with a top-four primary; (2) require a ranked-choice voting system for general elections.”

Idaho Supreme Court issues substitute opinion in ballot title case

On Wednesday, the Idaho Supreme Court issued a substitute opinion that replaces its original Aug. 10 opinion in the case of Idahoans for Open Primaries vs. Labrador that involved the ballot titles. 

In the new opinion, the Idaho Supreme Court looked at the new ballot titles Labrador’s office issued Aug. 11. In the new opinion, the Idaho Supreme Court certified the new ballot titles from Labrador’s office.

“Having reviewed the revised short and general ballot titles, we conclude that they are consistent with the views expressed in our prior opinion dated August 10, 2023, and that they also substantially comply with the requirements of Idaho Code section 34-1809(2)(d) and (e),” Idaho Supreme Court Justice Colleen D. Zahn wrote. Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice G. Richard Bevan and Justices Robyn M. Brody and Gregory W. Moeller concurred. 

However, Justice John R. Stegner dissented, writing that he disagrees with the majority opinion because he perceives “multiple flaws in the amended language.”

Stegner even went as far as to submit a red-lined version of the ballot titles where he proposed his own ballot titles for the ballot initiative. 

The short title Stegner proposed is, “Measure to (1) create new primary elections with a top-four primary; (2) implement a ranked choice voting system for general elections.”

Stegner chose to use the phrase “implement a ranked choice voting system” instead of Labrador’s language to “require a ranked choice voting system” because Stegner wanted to emphasize that Idaho voters would not be required to rank all of the candidates in the general election; they would have the option to do so.

“The second clause implies that voters will be required to participate in ranked choice general election, when in fact a voter would be entitled to cast a vote for a single individual,” Stegner wrote. “In my view, these misimpressions alone give me pause. However, significant additional problems remain.”

Reclaim Idaho co-founder Luke Mayville said the Idaho Supreme Court’s new substitute opinion does not change anything for Idahoans for Open Primaries, and the groups will move forward with their signature drives this weekend. 

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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.

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