An Idaho Senate committee approved legislation requiring voters to declare themselves to be Republicans, Democrats, members of other parties, or unaffiliated. That designation could then limit their access to primary election ballots. The full Senate is expected to vote on the legislation Thursday afternoon.
Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said the new voter registration and primary election system isn’t a true closed primary system, because political party leaders could allow independents to cast a vote in their primaries.
Under the new plan, voters would declare their party affiliation when they vote in the 2012 primary or when they register to vote. People who don’t pick a party could only vote in a partisan primary if the political party chair allows them. Party chairs could also let voters from other political parties vote in their primary, if they wish. Voters could change parties in subsequent primaries, though that would need to happen more than two months before a primary.
The legislation follows a federal court ruling earlier this month that struck down the state’s open primary system, in which voters don’t register by party and can pick any party’s ballot when going to the polls during the May primary.
Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who supported the old open primary, said Idaho’s primary participation is abysmal and called the closed primaries a major change. He also said he hoped the change wouldn’t lead to a drop in voter participation.
The Idaho Republican Party brought that lawsuit against the state and supports the new legislation. Party chairman Norm Semanko said the party would welcome independents, though current state party rules say only Republicans registered with the party before the primary election date can vote in the party’s primary.
Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Larry Grant, who also supports open primaries, told lawmakers the closed primary issue is a Republican intramural fight. He also called the new primary system too complicated and said it could lead to more lawsuits.
“I simply urge you to make it as simple as possible, and make it as easy as possible for people to vote,” Grant told lawmakers.
Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said he thinks the new primary system is simple. He also said the early deadline for switching parties allows parties to prevent “known political operatives” from crossing over to vote.
Davis also asked Grant whether the new primary system could allow Democrats to stop holding a closed caucus for its presidential primary. Grant said Democratic National Committee rules require Idaho to hold a caucus as long as the party has an open primary that allows independents to potentially get a Democratic ballot.
The legislation passed the Senate State Affairs Committee on a party-line vote, with Democrats in opposition. Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, said he’s concerned because voters’ party preference could become public knowledge, which could be problematic for voters who side with a minority party.
“This is a very very private thing amongst a lot of people,” Malepeai said. He also said the new primary system is too doggone complex. “Making this more complex and having to declare party affiliation is going to be a deterrent to voter participation.”
Davis said the full Senate is scheduled to vote on the legislation Thursday afternoon. He said the legislation isn’t being rushed, because plans for a closed primary have been discussed at the Statehouse for years.