I don't really know how many Idahoans have told me in the last month, especially before the primary election last week, that there was no way they were going to publicly declare or sign up with a political party. Not all but a lot of them were, well, known Democrats.
The widespread (and it does seem to be widespread) antipathy to the new party registration regime in Idaho looks to be especially strong left of center, not a great shock in a state dominated by Republicans. Voting patterns from last week seem to support that idea.
Secretary of State Ben Ysursa was quoted as saying, "In my opinion, the main reason for the decline in the turnout was attributable to the, for the first time, Idaho’s closed primary where people had to declare their party affiliation and make that a public record."
His office hasn't yet posted the number of ballots cast and the number of registered voters, from which turnout is calculated. But if you take his website's estimate from not long ago of registered voters (about 742,000) and the "turnout" estimate of about 23%, then you come up with a number of cast ballots around 170,660. Since the total number of partisan ballots cast in the congressional primaries was 154,649, you get the suspect that even 23% could be a tad high.
You'd have to go back quite a way to hit a lower number for a primary election - back when Idaho's population was smaller. In 2100, primary turnout was 203,013; in 2008, it was 182,627; in 2006 it was 184,456. Back in 2004 the ballots-cast number was similar (172,006) to this year, but that was an unusually boring primary season.
The diminished turnout, then, seems to be solidly established. Overall turnout was down about 29,000 from 2010 and about 8,000 from 2008, and about 6,000 from 2006. (Primaries in non-presidential years tend to bulge a little higher because most of the statewide officials are on the ballot then.)
There's another interesting numbers question too, in a release from the Idaho Republican Party (whose efforts generated the registration system). Party rules Chair Ronald Nate offered the analysis that "Idaho Democrats have a problem. They are bleeding support. With all the speculation about the Republican’s move to closed primaries possibly hurting voter turnout; the actual vote totals tell a startling story." (Note, before we move on, that he's not disputing the idea of the system "hurting voter turnout," but just drawing attention to something else.)
His numbers, which are accurate, are a mix of cherry-picking and something intriguing.
The argument is about the Democrats comes from votes cast in the congressional races, for Democratic candidates, amounting to 10,149 this year, compared with 24,698 in 2010 and 36,101 in 2008. That trajectory looks like a charge right off the cliff: At that rate, they'll get no votes at all in 2014.
Broaden the picture a bit, though: In 2006 the Democratic congressionals drew 27,856, and in 2004 collected 25,741. 2008 looks like an aberration, explainable by the Obama enthusiasm at that time. A standard Democratic turnout of around 24-30,000 seems in place.
(That seems to be in the range of a fifth to a quarter of the Republican turnout, so there's certainly a story here of Republican dominance in Idaho. And Republicans didn't seem to mind registering nearly as much. Republican congressional votes, at 144,500, were down from the much hotter primary year of 2010, when 158,746 voted in those races. But this year's Republican primary turnout, in the congressional races at least, was higher than in any year prior to 2010, so advocates within the party can legitimately crow about that.)
Except that this year, fewer than half as many voted, accounting for just about all of the decline in overall primary voter turnout. The Republican Party naturally argues that has something to do with Obama, but that doesn't seem likely; presidential caucus turnout, even without a contests, was fairly strong among the Democrats, and Democrats generated a larger than usual number of candidates for office this year. Neither indicated a recent utter collapse (comparatively) among Democrats.
No, the more logical explanation is that Democrats, more than most others, rejected participation in the system. While it is true that only those voting in the Republican primary had to register with that party, it's also the case that to vote at all, you had to "Fill out a new voter registration card, Fill out a Party Affiliation Declaration form, Declare a party [or non-affiliated] at the polls at the 2012 Primary Election." And a lot of people just rejected that.
And we now have a pretty good idea of who did - and, for the most part, it doesn't seem to have been Republicans.