Former Idaho Gov. Butch Otter speaks at the memorial service for former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt at the Idaho Capitol on March 9, 2023. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
Former Idaho Gov. Buch Otter endorsed the open primary ballot initiative on Wednesday, becoming the highest profile member of a group of more than 100 Republicans who support the initiative.
During a press conference Wednesday morning at the Idaho State Capitol in Boise, leaders of a coalition called Idahoans for Open Primaries announced that Otter and former Idaho First Lady Lori Otter were among a list of 116 Republicans who have signed on to endorse the open primary ballot initiative.
Butch Otter spoke at the press conference and said he has opposed closed primary elections for years.
“The right to vote is one of the most precious rights that Americans have,” Otter said in a written statement before Wednesday’s press conference. “Every registered voter should have the right to weigh in on choosing our leaders. Independents, including a lot of military veterans, have been excluded from having their say because of the closed GOP primary.”
At the end of Wednesday’s press conference, Butch and Lori Otter signed the petition for the open primary ballot initiative. In a speech at the press conference, Lori Otter said the closed Republican primary elections have made the party more extreme and the party’s state central committee has been taken over by people who are only interested in furthering themselves. She called on women and young people in the Republican Party to take notice and get involved.
“If you don’t pay attention to what’s happening to this party, this party is going to lose its power of everything that the Republican Party stands for,” Lori Otter said.
Lori Otter was particularly critical of the Idaho Republican Party’s state central committee for taking away the voting rights of the Federation of Republican Women, the Idaho Young Republicans and the Idaho College Republicans during the GOP’s summer meeting in Challis.
“They need to know that people are paying attention and this primary is so important, so important to bring Idaho and that big tent back together in the Republican Party to where everybody feels welcomed in the party and people don’t feel marginalized,” Lori Otter said.
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Idaho has had a closed primary law since the Idaho Legislature passed House Bill 351 in 2011. The closed primary law means that political parties don’t have to let voters who are not affiliated with the party vote in that party’s primary election. The law gives political parties the ability to open their primary election to unaffiliated voters or voters from a different party if party leaders officially notify the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office by the last Tuesday in November prior to a primary election.
During Idaho’s most recent primary elections in 2022, only the Democratic Party opened its primary election to other voters.
Members of the coalition Idahoans for Open Primaries are gathering signatures hoping to qualify their ballot initiative to go before Idaho voters in the November 2024 general election. The coalition includes the group Reclaim Idaho, which was behind the successful Medicaid expansion ballot initiative that more than 60% of Idaho voters supported in 2018.
The open primary initiative seeks to end Idaho’s closed party primary elections and replace them with a single primary election where all candidates and all voters could participate, regardless of party affiliation. The top four vote-getters from the primary election, regardless of party affiliation, would then advance to the general election in November.
The initiative would also change the general election by replacing it with a ranked choice, or instant runoff election system. Idaho voters would vote for their favorite candidate and then have the option of ranking the three remaining candidates on the ballot in order of preference. Under that system, the candidate with the fewest voters would be eliminated and the votes for that candidate would instead be transferred to the voter’s second choice of candidate. That process would continue until there are just two candidates remaining and the candidate with the most votes wins and is elected.
Otter said the ballot initiative is modeled after a similar ballot initiative that Alaska voters approved in 2020.
“The system worked well in Alaska in 2022,” Otter said in a written statement. “The idea that the system will hurt the Republican Party was debunked by the election results.”
Otter said Alaska’s Republican governor and U.S. senator were re-elected in 2022 and 85% of voters said the voting system was “simple.”
The list of former Republican elected officials includes former Lt. Gov. Jack Riggs and former Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, who served as co-chair of the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Former Sens. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene; Denton Darrington, R-Declo; Laird Noh, R-Kimberly; Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston; Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian and Reps. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry; Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls; and George Eskridge, R-Dover.
Former Speaker of the Idaho House Bruce Newcomb and former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones — both Republicans — organized the group of 116 Republicans who have endorsed the open primary ballot initiative.
Idaho Republican Party state and county chairs urge opposition to ballot initiative
Meanwhile, Idaho Republican Party Chairwoman Dorothy Moon and Kootenai County Republican Central Committee Chairman Brent Regan oppose the open primary ballot initiative.
In an Aug. 23 column, Regan sarcastically mocked the open primary initiative, which he said is confusing and would benefit progressive Democrats.
“Our intellectual betters at Reclaim (Idaho) know that using our current arcane system where political parties nominate candidates to run for office and are elected using one man one vote produces results progressives find unacceptable; they lose,” Regan wrote, urging readers to decline to sign the petition.
In an Aug. 18 column, Moon wrote that the open primary ballot initiative is a complex scheme that sidelines political parties.
“Make no mistake, this initiative is a pernicious plot to take away your ability to vote for conservative lawmakers,” Moon wrote. “The blanket primary takes away your right to nominate your own candidates – just as BYU doesn’t get to decide who starts at quarterback for BSU, neither should Democrats get to vote on who represents the Republican Party in the general election.”
What will it take to get the ballot initiative in Idaho’s November 2024 general election?
In order to qualify the ballot initiative for the November 2024 general election, supporters must gather signatures from 6% of registered voters statewide and 6% of voters in 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts. In order to meet the statewide requirements, Idahoans for Open Primaries must collect signatures from about 63,000 registered voters.
They have until May 1 to turn the signatures into the state.
If they meet the requirements to qualify for the election, it would take a simple majority of voters to pass the ballot initiative.
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