Writings and observations

Idaho Republicans get closure

This will be of high interest. The long-awaited opinion from Federal District Judge Lynn Winmill out today says that the Idaho Republican Party can insist that only declared members can participate in their primaries.

This case presents the question whether the State of Idaho’s use of an open primary system to determine nominees for the general election violates the Idaho Republican Party’s First Amendment rights. Because the open primary permits substantial numbers of independent voters, as well as voters associated with other political parties, to “cross over” and participate in the Republican Party’s selection of its nominees, the Court concludes that, by mandating such a nomination process, the State violates the Party’s constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of association.

The Idaho Republican Party and its Chairman, Norm Semanko, brought this action against Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, to challenge the State of Idaho’s use of an open primary to select candidates for the general election. Several interested groups have been permitted to intervene, including: (1) a group of Idaho registered voters who do not align themselves with any political party, and who consider themselves independents; (2) the American Independent Movement of Idaho, LLC (“AIM”); and (3) the Committee for a Unified Independent Party, Inc. (“CUIP”). Motion to Intervene, Dkt. 3. Neither the Democratic Party nor the Libertarian Party, both of which have had nominees selected using Idaho’s open primary over the last 5 election cycles, have sought leave to intervene in this suit.

This isn’t a surprise; we’ve remarked in this space about the realistic possibility the case might go this way. It may come as a shock to quite a few Idahoans accustomed to voting in whichever primary they like. And it is likely to worry a lot of Republican elected officials, who have not been among those pushing for this – conservative activists in the Republican Party have been.

While the point of a members-only approach can be dealt with on a freedom of association level, which is what Winmill seemed mainly to do, some other arguments didn’t hit a high enough threshold. There’s been the argument, for example, that allowing in non-Republicans may have altered the outcome of a number of Republican primaries. The evidence is limited, but he did accept the simple, on-its-face evidence (from the defendants) that crossover voting does occur, in volume, as a matter of common sense in a state so heavily dominated by one party.

He also pulled up a fun chart showing the number of contested Republican as opposed to Democratic primaries, election by election. In 2010, there were 31 contested Republican primaries, and two Democratic; in 2008, 28 Republican and no Democratic; in 2006, 27 Republican and one Democratic, and so on for the last two decades.

And, “Thus, even if we use the most conservative estimate of 10% crossover voting, with only a small number of partisan raiders, the effects can be devastating to a party.”

The ruling appears to apply only to a political party that declares that it wants to limit participation in its primaries to declared members. Idaho Democrats and Libertarians evidently are not so bound.

The GOP activists who sought a closed primary got their wish. Interesting now, come the next election cycle (and there is of course plenty of time to implement this by 2012), how the results shake out. How many Idahoans register as Republicans? And what of those who, despite casting routine Republican votes up to now, choose not to?

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