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Closed primaries, mixed blessing


By closing its primary a decade ago, the Idaho Republican Party achieved its intended purpose of killing off Democrats’ efforts to manipulate the results of Republican contests. But in doing so, it has unleashed a wave of hyper-partisanship previously unseen in Idaho and not of always positive results.

The law which allows political parties to define their own primaries (Title 34-904A IC) ironically was allowed by a Democrat federal judge, Lynn Winmill, who ruled that parties could conduct their own primary selection process to screen out non-party members. That’s what was then done; to vote in the GOP primary since 2011, you have to be either a declared Republican or an Independent. Democrats could no longer vote in the GOP primary as “cross overs.”

I was in the Idaho House of Representatives at the time and voted for the bill in the 2011 (HB 351) legislative session. At the time, it was evident that cross-over voting was widespread. Democrats were open and indeed proud about how they had infiltrated the process to nominate Republican candidates more to their liking. I, like many other Republican legislators, thought this manipulation was deceitful and that modifying the law for a closed primary was the best solution.

Today, Idaho’s GOP primary process remains “closed.” Democrats allow anyone to vote in their own primary, but except in a few isolated locations, they don’t have the votes to win the subsequent general election contests. They are thus left in a “dead end alley,” since the state is now so heavily Republican overall.

So how is that not a good thing, Republicans might ask? What’s wrong with crimping down sneak-in Democrat voters and send their few office holders “packing” as some Republicans avow?

The obvious result has been a sharp change in the profiles of elected public officials, who are now, as a body, more conservative politically and ideologically than a decade ago. Back then, there were a few hard-right individuals in the Idaho House; today, it’s more like a dozen who often vote “no” `as a block on many issues.

More significantly, they seem to approach most issues from an ideological perspective; if a proposed legislation doesn’t square with their interpretations, it gets an automatic turn-down. Practical needs outside of their world-view aren’t given even a listen, much less a nod.

Over time, the closed primary has resulted in more such linear thinking among many, particularly in the House. With Democrats all but eliminated (only 12 of 70 House seats, 7 of 35 Senate), what were once Party versus Party disputes have move almost wholly to internal power contests within Republican ranks. This, as is readily predictable, puts the closed primary as the major “clash point.”

We can see this emerging split now in the raft of declarations of people deciding to run or not. The governor’s race already has three arch-conservatives vying to challenge Gov. Brad Little. Not a single Democrat has yet declared. Other arch-conservatives have declared for other positions, setting up next May’s GOP primary as a watershed one, all down the GOP ticket.

The splitting apart of political factions is evident all around the country, within both the GOP and the Democratic Parties. It’s part of the modern political profile of the nation; in state after state, we see various factions vying for power. This faction splitting was recognized as early as the first years of the republic. Then, James Madison (Federalist #10) sketches the dangers clearly of how excessive partisanship would hinder our common heritage and future of the nation. Time has clearly proven him correct, with the Civil War and today’s culture war as prime examples.

But that hasn’t lessened the bickering, insults, put-downs and now doxing. Citizens routinely say want elected officials to work for the common good, but there isn’t agreement as to what that means in day-to-day governance. Thus, fueled by special interest groups and the so-called Idaho Freedom Foundation and its fat-cat outsiders, every issue becomes an arena of dispute.

The overall result is less progress on practical matters, less civility in personal relationships and an angry, strident tone to many debates, mostly from the rightists who contest and argue incessantly. This is then spread across the state by a contentious and partisan media which feeds off every dispute as if it were a battle royal.

It’s unrealistic to expect the closed primary law would be reversed, certainly not in the near future. There are other ways of conducting elections, such as rank-tiered voting, but there’s not been much discussion of that for Idaho. The closed primary is the “elephant in the room” which we all know is there.

Rightists like the closed primary as it benefits their candidates in the split primary contests. They can win a primary contest sometimes with less than 30 percent of the vote, as Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin did in 2018, thus vaulting narrow and strident candidates into office who lack even basic qualifications, Democrats decry it, but are powerless to stop it, so they live within the closed primary system they ironically created.

The only immediate corrective would be to defeat or retire the most tin-hatted obstructionists, or to squeeze them out of the GOP and legislative caucus into an Anarchist Party of their own, as that is who they really are. In the meantime, we reap what we have sown.

Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee.  Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He can be reached at

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