Mormon Women for Ethical Government’s Amanda Stark, left, and Margaret Kinzel collect a signature from voter Bonnie Rast for the Open Primary Initiative in Meridian on October 7, 2023. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
Carrying a clipboard and an electronic canvassing app downloaded to their phones, Margaret Kinzel and Amanda Stark set out on foot just before 10 a.m. on Saturday morning in Meridian to talk to voters.
Kinzel and Stark’s turf was a suburban residential neighborhood located in the heart of Legislative District 21 in Meridian, a solidly Republican district that elected three first-term GOP legislators during the most recent election in 2022.
The MiniVAN canvassing app on their phones has the names and addresses of all the registered voters in the neighborhood all loaded up in order, allowing the volunteers to greet the voter by name after ringing the doorbell and knocking.
“Good morning,” Kinzel said. “We’re gathering signatures with the open primary ballot initiative trying to end the closed primary in Idaho, so that all voters can vote in the primaries. We’re just trying to get it on the ballot at this point. Can we have your signature?”
The very first voter, who was up early to do some sewing, agreed. She signed and printed her name and then wrote out her address, city and the current date.
As she left the driveway, Stark updated the MiniVAN app to note that the first voter on the list signed the petition.
It’s one of more than 25,000 signatures that the Idahoans for Open Primaries supporters have gathered since beginning their signature drive Aug. 19. They have until May 1 to gather more than 63,000 signatures statewide and gather signatures from at least 6% of registered voters in 18 different legislative districts.
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Gathering ballot initiative signatures across Idaho
Kinzel and Stark’s app syncs up with the entire Idahoans for Open Primaries database, ensuring the volunteer signature gatherers aren’t asking the same people to sign the petition over and over again.
The app also lets the signature gathers mark a notation if the voter declines to sign the petition or doesn’t answer the door.
All told, the entire exchange takes around two minutes, and then it’s on to the second registered voter in the neighborhood.
“Whatever it is, we don’t want any,” someone calls out from behind the door at the second home.
Kinzel and Stark thank the person, wish them a good day, update the app with a “no” and move on to the next house.
They keep at it for the next 90 minutes. The district 21 neighborhood in Meridian is a tougher sell than the more supportive southeast Boise neighborhoods where Stark gathered signatures earlier. In Boise, Stark said random people driving through neighborhoods would see the open primaries sign on volunteers’ clipboards, turn their cars around, stop and approach the volunteers asking to sign the petition.
In Meridian, about one-third of the people didn’t come to the door on Saturday morning and of those who did, about half said “no.”
But most people were nice and many had cute dogs, so Kinzel and Stark kept walking. District 21 is one the 18 legislative districts that open primary supporters hope to qualify the ballot initiative in, so they need to gather signatures from at least 6% of voters in the district before May 1.
One voter tells Stark and Kinzel that he likes the current system and doesn’t think Republicans and Democrats should all be lumped together in the same primary. The point of a primary election is for members of each party to select their own candidate or nominee, the voter said. Stark says that voter participation in closed primary elections is often less than 20%, and she’s concerned that more voters don’t have a voice in the primary election that has outsized influence because of the supermajority that Republicans have held for decades in Idaho. The voter responds by saying that more people should vote then.
They agreed to disagree, with Stark and Kinzel petting the voter’s dog, Doc, gently as they left and everyone wishing each other a good day.
Nobody answered the door at the next three houses and one man on the sidewalk said not to even think about coming to his house down the street.
But as the next door swung open, a woman stepped out and almost hugged Kinzel.
“I’ve been waiting for someone to come by,” the woman said, extending a hand to sign the petition.
After 90 minutes, Kinzel and Stark circled around one entire block and through another cul-de-sac. They had gathered eight more signatures. Added to the four signatures Kinzel gathered earlier, they’ve filled up a full sheet and are ready to turn the sheet back in to be notarized.
“I’ve talked to Republicans and I’ve talked to independents and I’ve talked to Democrats,” Stark said. “There is a hunger out there for change. People are not satisfied with the status quo. There have been some firm “nos,” but in terms of overall response, I would say it’s about half or even more than half who sign. It’s a pretty high response rate.”
Leader of Idaho Republican Party voices opposition to open primary
Idaho Republican Party Chairwoman Dorothy Moon and some Republican officeholders have led the charge to publicly come out against the open primary initiative.
“Idaho’s news media wants you to believe that following organizational rules is ‘bullying’ and that a jungle primary ranked choice voting system is ‘common sense,’” Moon wrote in a Sept. 22 column.
“This initiative would overturn the time-tested American principle of ‘one man, one vote’ that has been the foundation of our republican system of government since the beginning,” Moon wrote Sept. 14.
Earlier this year, the Idaho Legislature also voted to prohibit ranked choice voting through House Bill 179. If the open primary ballot initiative succeeds, it would repeal House Bill 179.
The Mountain States Policy Center, a nonpartisan 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that supports free markets, has publicly expressed concern with the ranked choice voting aspect of the initiative.
“Moving our election systems to (a) clean open primary like Washington’s Top Two, is a debate worth having,” Mountain States Policy Center vice president Jason Mercier wrote Sept. 15. “Adopting open primaries, however, need not be limited to a take-it-or-leave-it proposition tied to the controversy of Ranked Choice Voting.”
Mormon Women for Ethical Government join open primary coalition
Kinzel and Stark are active with the Idaho Chapter of Mormon Women for Ethical Government. On Saturday, Kinzel and other Idaho chapter leaders of the group announced their organization officially joined the Idahoans for Open Primaries ballot initiative.
That announcement followed the Sept. 13 announcement that former Republican Gov. Butch Otter, former Idaho first lady Lori Otter and more than 200 Idaho Republican voters and former GOP officeholders have endorsed the open primary initiative.
Other groups in the Idahoans for Open Primaries coalition include Reclaim Idaho, North Idaho Women, Idaho Task Force of Veterans for Political Innovation, the Hope Coalition and Represent US.
Reclaim Idaho is the same nonpartisan group that was behind the successful 2018 Medicaid expansion ballot initiative, which more than 60% of Idaho voters approved in November 2018. Reclaim Idaho also qualified the Quality Education Act for the November 2022 ballot before the Idaho Legislature took steps to repeal it. Several Democratic legislators credited Reclaim Idaho with spurring the Idaho Legislature on to approve a large funding increase for public schools during the 2022 special season.
Kinzel, who is a co-leader of Mormon Women for Ethical Government in Idaho, said the open primary ballot initiative aligns with the organization’s goals to be peaceful, faithful, proactive and nonpartisan in supporting an ethical government that opposes polarization.
“Recently I’ve watched as our political climate has shifted where it seems like some people in power are more interested in staying in power than listening to and speaking to the people they represent,” Kinzel told a crowd of open primary supporters Saturday morning at Storey Park in Meridian before she went out door-to-door.
“We believe the open primary will allow each voter to seek out reliable information about the candidates and then vote for the candidate that matches their principles and has their trust,” Kinzel added. “And I think that is so needed right now for us at this time. Government by the people and for the people works when the voters feel like they are respected and listened to and that is what this is all about.”
Cindy Wilson, who ran unsuccessfully for statewide superintendent of public instruction in Idaho in 2018 as a Democrat, was among the members of Mormon Women for Ethical Government who gathered signatures in Meridian.
“The divisiveness that we have seen in our state can be fixed by this initiative and opening that primary vote to allow more people to participate in government,” Wilson told the Sun. “One of the things that we will see from that is that a majority of people can now elect their representatives instead of in some cases they have only had under 20% of the population that actually elects someone to the Legislature. This initiative can change that, and I am so excited to support it through Mormon Women for Ethical Government.”
How does the open primary initiative work?
The initiative is designed to end the closed primary elections that Idaho has had in place since the Idaho Legislature passed House Bill 351 in 2011. The closed primary law means that political parties do not have to let voters who are not affiliated with their political party vote in their primary elections. During the most recent elections in 2022, only the Democratic Party opened its primary election to all registered voters. The Republican, Libertarian and Constitution Party primary elections were all closed, a spokesperson for the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office previously told the Idaho Capital Sun.
The ballot initiative would replace the closed party primary elections in Idaho and replace them with a single primary election that all candidates would run in and all voters would vote in, regardless of party affiliation. Under the ballot initiative, the top four voter-getters from the primary election, regardless of party affiliation, would advance to the general election in November.
The ballot initiative would also make changes to the general election by creating an instant runoff, or ranked choice system of voting. Under that system, Idaho voters would pick their favorite candidate in the general election and have the option to rank the other three candidates in order of preference — all on the same ballot. When results are counted, the candidate with the fewest voters is eliminated and their votes would instead be transferred to each voter’s second choice of candidate. That process would continue until there are two candidates left and the candidate with the most votes is the winner and elected.
The open primary supporters have until May 1 to turn in the necessary signatures to qualify the ballot initiative for the November 2024 general election. To qualify, they will need to gather signatures from 6% of voters statewide and 6% of voters in at least 18 of the state’s 35 legislative districts.
To meet the statewide requirement, they will need about 63,000 signatures.
As of Monday, Reclaim Idaho co-counder Luke Mayville said open primary supporters have gathered 25,186 signatures statewide and have held signature gathering kickoff events in 30 different communities across the state.
If the ballot initiative qualifies for the November 2024 election, it would take a simple majority of votes to approve it.
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