Are open primaries in Idaho's future? A state-wide coalition is working toward that goal. - East Idaho News

Are open primaries in Idaho’s future? A state-wide coalition is working toward that goal.

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REXBURG — The Rexburg Area Chamber of Commerce hosted the forum Wednesday to discuss a proposed initiative that would transform Idaho’s current election system.

The city council chamber was packed with Rexburg citizens wanting to learn more about the proposed open primary initiative.

The chamber had invited two presenters to offer opposing views: Maria Nate, secretary for the Idaho Republican Party, and Hyrum Erickson, a Republican precinct committeeman in Madison County.

About Idaho’s Primary Elections

Idaho’s passed a law in 2011 that closed party primaries. However, the law also allowed leaders of each party the ability to keep their primaries open if they wished.

The Idaho Democratic Party opted to do so, and all registered Idaho voters can vote in the Idaho Democratic Party’s primary elections.

The Idaho Republican Party kept its primary closed, meaning only voters who are registered Republicans can vote in the Republican primary election.

Idahoans for Open Primaries, a coalition between the Idaho Task Force of Veterans for Political Innovation, North Idaho Women, Represent US Idaho, the Hope Coalition and Reclaim Idaho, is trying to change that.

RELATED | Idahoans for Open Primaries to begin ballot initiative signature drive Saturday

What would the new open primary ballot initiative do?

The open primary initiative is designed to fundamentally change elections in Idaho.

It would do away with the closed primary system. Instead, there would be a “top four” primary election. All the candidates, regardless of their party affiliation, would run against each other on the same primary ballot; the top four vote-getters would advance to the general election in November.

Procedures for the general election would also change to include a new instant runoff process, commonly referred to as ranked-choice voting.

Here’s how that would work:

During the general election, Idaho voters would vote for their first choice of candidate. They would also be able to rank the other candidates in order of preference. If no candidate won more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, a process of elimination based on voters’ ballot rankings would begin.

The candidate who finished last would be automatically eliminated. The voters who had that candidate as their number-one choice would have their number-two choice counted instead. The process would repeat until one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the votes. That candidate would be declared the winner.

The whole process would make elections more complex, less transparent and less trustworthy, according to Nate.

“Faith in election integrity is at an all-time low,” she pointed out. “Why would you want to confuse and complicate the process even more?”

The ballots themselves would look radically different, with bubbles after each name so voters can rank their choices. The added bubbles make the ballot larger, she said. Sometimes, a single race can take up a whole page.

“Massive public educations are necessary to help voters navigate this strange new process,” Nate said.

New York spent $15 million on a voter education campaign “to make sure voters could vote correctly,” she noted.

Maria Nate on Wednesday, December 13. | Mary Boyle,

“Every additional bubble a voter has to complete creates the opportunity for stray marks, mis-votes and double votes,” she warned. “It’s just too difficult for voters.”

Additionally, counting and tabulating the votes would be “an administrative nightmare,” she said. The other option would be a “rise of the machines” to count votes. Machines lack accountability, she said, and make elections less transparent.

Erickson, representing Idahoans for Open Primaries, argued the open primary system would be more fair and allow all Idaho voters to have a voice.

Sample Ballot
A sample ballot from Alaska | Idahoans for Open Primaries

Many Idaho counties — Madison included — often don’t have races that are contested at the general election, Erickson said. Whoever wins the Republican Party primary essentially wins the election.

For over 250,000 Idaho voters who either belong to a third party or want to remain unaffiliated with a party, a closed primary means they don’t get to vote on state or local leadership if there isn’t a Democrat running.

That’s about 30 percent of Idaho voters whose voices aren’t being heard, Erickson pointed out.

“In those districts, Independents, Libertarians and Constitutionalists weren’t able to vote for their candidate,” he said. “This is wrong. … I cannot over-emphasize the importance of opening up that election to everyone.”

Open primaries would also encourage politicians to broaden their base and foster relationships in a spirit of cooperation. After all, a candidate wouldn’t want to alienate people who could still help him win if he is their second or third choice, Erickson pointed out.

“The current system,” he said, “rewards politicians that activate their base by creating fear and outrage.”

Hyrum Erickson on Wednesday, December 13. | Mary Boyle,

Most audience members didn’t understand why the primaries were closed in the first place or why a ballot initiative was needed to open them again.

The whole point of closing the primary, Nate said, was to keep the party from being “diluted” by more liberal candidates who don’t fully support the Republican Party platform.

“Speaking of disenfranchisement, I know many people who do have to register as a Republican because we all know a Republican candidate is going to win. … Why do you feel only Republicans should have a voice in the state of Idaho?” One woman in the audience asked.

“A primary is party business,” Nate said.

Republicans should be able to vote on a Republican ballot with candidates who fully support the party platform, she said.

A party has every right to choose their candidate, Erickson acknowledged, but closed primaries aren’t the only way to do that.

To view the forum in its entirety, click here.

First things first

Before an initiative can appear on the ballot for the voters of Idaho to decide on, organizers of a ballot initiative must gather the signatures of at least 6% of registered voters statewide and the signatures of at least 6% of voters in at least 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts.

That means Idahoans for Open Primaries organizers will need to gather signatures from at least 62,895 voters statewide and then meet the 6 percent requirement in at least 18 legislative districts by May 1, 2024, to qualify for the November 2024 election.

So far, according to Idahoans for Open Primaries, they have gathered 50,000 signatures.

Margaret Kinzel, co-leader of the Idaho chapter of Mormon Women for Ethical Government, one of the organizations supporting the initiative, said in a news release on Wednesday that the coalition hopes to have 100,000 signatures before they submit the initiative.

“The fact that volunteers have already reached 50,000 signatures in just four months is a testament to how passionate Idahoans are about the prospect of an open primary,”

If the open primary ballot initiative receives enough signatures to qualify for the November 2024 election, it would take a simple majority — more than 50 percent — of voters to approve a change to Idaho’s law.

If the ballot initiative passes, Idaho would join Maine and Alaska as the third state to offer instant runoff or ranked choice voting.