Sunday, July 14, 2024
60.0°F

Idaho open primary initiative in final stretch

by KAYE THORNBRUGH
Hagadone News Network | April 28, 2024 1:00 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — Supporters of a ballot initiative that would open Idaho’s primary elections to all voters are making a final push to gather signatures before the May 1 deadline to submit signatures for verification.

Members of the Idahoans for Open Primaries coalition say the initiative tackles what they believe is the “problem” of closed primary elections. In a state where many elections are won in the primary, proponents of the initiative say closed primaries shut more than 275,000 unaffiliated Idaho voters out of the process.

“If you’re an independent voter and you don’t belong to a political party, you get blocked from voting in the most important elections,” said Luke Mayville, co-founder of Reclaim Idaho, which is part of the open primaries coalition. “The open primary initiative would change that by giving all voters, including independents, the right to vote in all primary elections.”

To get the initiative on the ballot in November, the coalition must collect about 63,000 signatures statewide. As of Friday afternoon, Mayville said the coalition has collected about 90,000 signatures across all 44 counties, at least 70,000 of which are believed to be valid. Signatures can be ruled invalid if they’re illegible, if the voter’s address on the petition doesn’t match the person’s voter registration or if the person who signed isn’t registered to vote.

The coalition must also gather signatures from 6% of voters in 18 different districts. Mayville said he believes the coalition has passed that threshold in 20 districts, including four in North Idaho.

The vast majority of signatures were collected by volunteers like Judy Lewis, who has gathered signatures throughout Shoshone County. She said most voters she’s connected with have responded positively to the initiative and agreed to sign.

Lewis has volunteered with Reclaim Idaho for years. The same organization was behind the Medicaid expansion ballot initiative in 2018, which passed with more than 60% of Idahoans voting in favor.

“Every initiative we’ve worked on are things that the people of Idaho desperately want but the state legislature will not cooperate,” she said. “They refuse to do it. But each of these initiatives have been well received.”

Brent Regan, chair of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, is among the Republican leaders in Idaho who have criticized the initiative and urged Idahoans to oppose it.

“Saying it’s an open primary is a misnomer,” Regan said. “It’s not opening the primary. It’s eliminating the primary.”

Indeed, the measure proposes two changes to elections for most public offices.

“First, this measure would abolish Idaho’s party primaries,” the measure states in part. “The initiative creates a system where all candidates participate in a top-four primary and voters may vote on all candidates. The top four vote-earners for each office would advance to the general election.”

Under the measure, Regan noted, candidates could list any affiliation on the ballot but wouldn’t represent political parties and need not be associated with the party they name.

“It implements legalized lying,” Regan said.

The measure would also create an instant runoff or ranked choice voting system for the general election.

In that system, voters choose their favorite candidate and may then rank up to three other candidates in order of preference.

If no candidate gets a majority when the votes are counted, the candidate who received the fewest votes is eliminated. Those who picked the losing candidate as their first choice would have their votes redirected to their second-choice candidate, and so on, until one candidate has earned a majority vote.

“This process makes it far more likely that every voter will have a real impact on the outcome of the election,” Mayville said.

Regan said the system is burdensome to voters.

“Ranked choice voting is very confusing to the voter because they have to rank all the candidates,” he said. “They have to decide how much they don’t like the others compared to the guy they like.”

Proponents say ranked choice voting ensures the winner has support from a broad coalition of voters. The proposed system would also mean few candidates running unopposed in general elections.

“Voters all across the spectrum, including Republicans, are frustrated when they show up to vote in general elections and there’s no real competition,” Mayville said. “When you vote, it feels like you’re just going through the motions.”

With open primaries where the top four candidates advance to the general election, Mayville said, there will usually be multiple Republican candidates on the ballot, giving Republican voters a “real choice” in November elections.

Not all Republican voters are interested, however.

“I really haven’t run into anyone in Republican circles that’s in favor of it,” Regan said. “The polling is remarkably negative.”

Recent polling data collected by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee shows that only about 28% of local Republican voters approve of open primaries, plus or minus five percent, Regan said. The sample size was 317 Republican likely voters with a median age of 64, which Regan said is a fair representation of the voter base.

“In Kootenai County, our median Republican voter age is right in the mid 60s,” he said.

There are more than 67,000 Republican voters in Kootenai County, according to data from the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office, as well as more than 26,000 unaffiliated voters.

Regan said the central committee is circulating about 20,000 flyers urging Kootenai County Republicans to reject ranked choice voting.

“It’s bad news,” he said. “It would be a tremendous disservice to the citizens of Idaho.”

Lewis said getting the open primary initiative on the ballot doesn’t guarantee it will pass. But it will give Idahoans the power to choose for themselves. She said that’s what ballot initiatives are all about.

“Idaho is special in that our state constitution allows this,” she said. “There are very strict guidelines in order to make this happen, but it’s doable. Then the people can decide.”