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AG Labrador and initiative groups wage war of words

A sign outside a building reads "Idaho Supreme Court."
Boise State Public Radio

The legal descriptions of a proposed ballot initiative to open up Idaho’s primary elections are now in the hands of the state supreme court in a literal battle of words.

Last month, Idahoans for Open Primaries and Reclaim Idaho, the organizers behind the initiative, sued Attorney General Raúl Labrador over his assigned descriptions.

Called “titles,” these descriptions appear on each petition circulated for signatures across the state, as well as on each voter’s ballot if the campaign is successful.

Under the initiative, primary voters would choose a single candidate from among all political parties without having to be affiliated with one. Currently, only registered Republicans are allowed to vote in the GOP primary.

The top four candidates under this proposed system would advance to the general election where voters could rank each candidate in order of preference.

If no one receives a 50% majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and those votes would be redistributed based on their remaining rankings.

Idahoans for Open Primaries and Reclaim Idaho said Labrador’s titles are both inaccurate and cast the issue in a negative light, something they said is linked to his public opposition to the campaign.

In oral arguments Monday morning, Deborah Ferguson, an attorney representing campaign organizers, said attorneys general must not let their bias creep into these descriptions.

“Voters need to be able to easily understand what an initiative is about when they read it so that they can determine whether or not they want to support the measure to appear on the ballot,” Ferguson said.

The short description of the initiative reads: “Measure to (1) replace voter selection of party nominees with nonparty blanket primary; (2) require ranked-choice voting for general elections.”

In a brief submitted prior to the hearing, Ferguson said using the phrase “replace voter selection of party nominees” implies a right is being taken away from voters and limits their choices.

The two groups also reject the more general label of “ranked choice voting,” a practice which state lawmakers banned earlier this year. Organizers would prefer to call it an “instant runoff” contest.

Justice Gregory Moeller questioned that distinction.

“Why wouldn’t just calling it what it is – ranked choice voting – be the most obvious way to go here?” asked Moeller.

In rebuttal, Ferguson said her clients could live with including “ranked choice voting,” but that her clients want the word “open” in the short description to emphasize that Idaho’s current closed primary system would no longer be in effect under the initiative.

While only shortly discussed during the hearing, Labrador’s office tried to dismiss the lawsuit on technical grounds, though justices didn’t offer a ruling on that argument Monday.

As for the merits of the case, Solicitor General Theo Wold defended the office’s work.

Referring to the proposed primary election process as a “nonparty blanket primary” is easy for voters to understand, Wold said, despite saying that Labrador’s office coined the term.

He said Washington and California have similar systems in place.

Blanket primaries were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 and neither state describes their primary elections by that name.

Justices questioned whether the average voter would understand what that phrase means.

Also at issue were tweets made by Labrador and Wold in May that organizers said clearly show neither can be trusted to be unbiased in this instance.

Referring to ranked choice voting, Labrador urged supporters to “defeat these bad ideas coming from liberal outside groups.”

Wold later quote tweeted that statement, saying, “State AGs are the strongest line of defense against the Left’s national campaign to force ranked choice voting on our elections. Leave this failed idea in NYC and Oakland.”

Justices asked Wold about those comments.

“The attorney general was not speaking to the specific initiative itself,” said Wold. “He was speaking to the general idea of ranked choice voting.”

In a brief, Labrador’s office said penalizing a partisan elected official for commenting on a political issue would violate his First Amendment rights.

In addition to changing the descriptions to more favorable ones, ballot initiative organizers are asking the court to extend the deadline by which they must turn in their petition signatures.

That deadline is currently April 30, 2024, but the groups didn’t suggest a new date.

Multiple justices questioned whether they had the authority to offer such a remedy.

The court has no deadline by which it’ll issue its opinion in the future.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

Copyright 2023 Boise State Public Radio

I cover politics and a bit of everything else for Boise State Public Radio. Outside of public meetings, you can find me fly fishing, making cool things out of leather or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season.

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