Local open primary supporters collect signatures
Staff Writer | September 26, 2023 1:00 AM
SANDPOINT — Supporters contend open primaries are needed to get all Idaho voters a say at the ballot box.
That’s why, through gathering signatures and providing resources, a group of Idahoans, including some in Bonner County, are fighting to put open primaries on the ballot in 2024.
Idahoans for Open Primaries are collecting signatures between now and May 1, 2024, with a goal for future elections in Idaho to be organized differently.
The current closed primary system uses separate primary ballots for political parties. Voters choose which ballot they want and vote for candidates on that ballot to move on to the general election, Haldan Gates, communications director for the local district volunteer group, said. He, along with other volunteers, sees flaws in this system.
“For one thing, many Idahoans identify themselves as independent," Gates said. “Under the current system, they can choose most of the state parties' ballots, but they're barred from choosing the Republican ballot. That excludes a lot of voters from a very important part of Idaho politics.”
Voters are also inhibited by not being able to “split their ticket” in the primary election because they have to choose one ballot, he said.
“If you wanted to make a choice between Libertarian candidates for governor, Republicans for lieutenant governor, and Constitution party candidates for your state rep, you wouldn't be able to,” Gates said.
These limitations lead to results that don't reflect the wants of the majority, he said. To address that, Idahoans for Open Primaries is promoting a system that changes the process and establishes a “top-four primary system.” All primary candidates would be on the same ballot that is distributed to all voters regardless of party affiliation. The four candidates with the most votes move on to an instant-runoff general election.
According to the proposed system, voters would choose their first choice for office but also have the opportunity to rank the remaining three based on order of preference. If one candidate receives a majority vote, they win the election. However, another process occurs that helps determine a winner when votes are distributed more evenly. If this happens, clerks distribute votes for “second choices” and so on, until a candidate with the most votes can be determined. This “ranking” system is still conducted even when one winner receives a majority vote because the resulting data offers detailed information about voter preferences of constituents.
The system is intentionally addressing some of the issues that may arise for states that conduct “top-two” open primary elections. Gates said the top four system helps avoid situations where one party sabotages another during primaries and limits representation in general elections.
“You can imagine that in California in some of those districts, if you're a Republican, you get to the general election and you see two Democrats on the ballot and you find yourself frustrated in a similar way that Democrats in Idaho feel,” Gates said. “We think a top-four primary gives enough voice to a pretty wide variety of political affiliations and backgrounds here in Idaho. The top four gives us variety and the rank choice helps us accurately express our desire for how we’re represented and we think this is a pretty good system for Idaho.”
Gates said local Bonner County volunteers have been presenting for organizations like Kiwanis and Rotary. Volunteers also meet at Evans Brothers every week to offer information and collect signatures. They are also present at the Saturday Farmer’s Market and at Vanderford’s Books during business hours.
“We're well on our way to qualifying based on yet-to-be-verified signature counts, but the verification process that the county clerks have to follow will take some time,” Gates said.
Idahoans for Open Primaries needs to collect signatures from 6% of registered voters in 18 districts, and 6% of registered voters overall in order for a measure to be placed on the ballot, Gates said. In this district, LD1, that means collecting a little under 2,000 signatures. If enough signatures are collected and districts are qualified, voters will have the option to vote on the open primary measure in the 2024 election. If passed the new system would be implemented for the 2026 election.
“What we're excited about is that this system invites more voters to participate in the primary up front, and then gives voters more freedom to choose their leadership. We also know that a system like this would dramatically reduce the power that PACs and dark money groups have, by preventing them from turning primaries into ugly smear campaigns to block candidates before they have a chance to reach out to general election voters. The whole process is intended to move power from special interests back to Idaho voters, where we strongly believe it belongs.”