Party angst

Idaho journalists, especially those who cover or write about politics at all, are having a difficult season on voter registration this year. The angst is contagious.

The rule for many years has been that while voter registration records – showing whether you’ve registered to vote, and whether or not you did – are open, no further information about votes and preferences have been. And journalists have been comfortable with that. But the rule changes this year. The Idaho Republican Party has chosen to limit participation in its primaries to people who submit a form declaring themselves Republicans. Or, more precisely, saying that “I wish to affiliate with the following political party,” and choosing Republican. Democratic, Constitution and Libertarian options are also available, as is unaffiliated.

In the past, political reporters and editors (or any other voter) could walk into a voting place at primary election, go behind a curtain, and pick a party, or not, with no one knowing what choice was made. No longer: The choice has to be made out in public. (Though only in the case of Republican; Democrats are allowing others to participate in their primaries.)

For many journalists, this creates an issue. John Pfeifer, the publisher of the Twin Falls Times News, did a nice run-through on it today, outlining the issues and the questions involved, and it’s worth a read. Among other considerations, what will the usual press critics do? (There’s been some talk about Wayne Hoffman of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, himself a former reporter, possibly publicizing those listings; but whether it’s him or someone else, there’s a good chance someone will.

Pfeifer writes “We’ve been told that reporters at Idaho Public Television have been instructed not to vote and Betsy Russell, political reporter for the Spokane Spokesman-Review and current President of the Idaho Press Club, has been instructed by her editor to do what she needs to do but with the caveat that if “it starts mushrooming into some kind of controversy” she might be reassigned off of the political beat.” (Which would be something approaching a tragedy.)

Then he adds: “Really, have we in the media become that fearful of offending people? Have we subjugated our reporters to some persona-non-grata status where they can no longer express their opinions at the ballot box? Do we think that little of our readers? Do we think that little of our legislators? Are we really afraid that if someone broadcasts what ballot our political reporter requests on a single day in May it will affect how she or he reports the news the other 364 (oops, leap year — 365) days of the year.”

He next questions whether that idea might be naive; but the view here is that it is not, that it should be pretty close to the responsive attitude on the part of journalists and their employers. In other words, spine up.

On a philosophical level you could think of it like Facebook. Journalists routinely “like” lots of political people and organizations, many of which they might have no personal use for, so that they can follow them. “Like” is something of a term of art in Facebook, and most people know that; and it’s easy to see who “likes” who. This hasn’t (maybe surprisingly) blown up into a big journalistic ethics controversy, but then there’s no reason it should. It’s a matter of practicality.

So, as practiced for many years in Idaho, has been primary voting.

On a personal level, I’ve never considered myself a member of any party, and still don’t. During the years I lived in Idaho, I still never failed (as far as I can recall) to vote in a primary election, nearly always choosing one major party or the other. Usually Republican, since there were normally more interesting races there. Why could not a journalist do exactly that, being open about it? Which would mean: File as a Republican (if that’s where the interesting races are), and say when asked that’s why the paperwork shows what it shows. A matter of practicality, voting where the serious races are, as opposed to consistent preference. It would probably be honest in a lot of cases. And it would leave the party purists fuming; but so what?

I now live in Oregon, where party registration has been the practice for many years. I’ve been registered throughout as NAV – non-affiliated voter – and the primary election ballots I get in the mail (take note, Idaho) have tended to be boring, often uncontested, judicial and local issues. One day, maybe a partisan primary ballot for one party or the other (both get interesting from time to time in Oregon) will tempt me to file the form for a party switch in advance of a primary election, and then switch back after election day.

Just that has happened with some Oregon journalists. And what do Oregon journalists do? I’m told the answer is all over the board. Some register as members of one of the major parties. Some are NAV. One political columnist in Salem used to switch his affiliation every two years, and so proclaimed in his columns. Others do similarly. (Every such change is itself, of course, public record.)

Nobody seems to be horribly bent out of shape by any of this. Speaking broadly: Oregon’s journalists are professionals, and they adhere to the same standards in writing and editing as journalists elsewhere do. If they don’t, it’ll turn up in their reporting and editing pretty quickly. The work product is, after all, out in public.

And the work product is what ought to matter. If it’s solid, if it’s done well, nothing else should matter.

And those people who show up with accusations of bias? They’ve been around, accusing journalists in Idaho (and everywhere else) of bias for many decades, whatever party registration may show – even if it shows nothing. This is nothing new.

Do a clean job, and the rest should take care of itself. And if that’s not good enough, nothing else you can do to pretend you’re a blank slate will ever be enough.

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