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Idaho primaries: Everybody pays for them, far from everyone votes

Nick Troiano is founding executive director of Unite America and author of The Primary Solution.
George Prentice, Unite America
Nick Troiano is founding executive director of Unite America and author of The Primary Solution.

Idaho is inching toward another primary season. But that also means an election that is defined, in large part, by who’s inside and who’s outside. The “closed” GOP primary means a good many Idahoans don’t participate in who might end up governing the Gem State. That said, those same citizens pay for those primaries, whether they’re allowed to participate or not.

“All citizens of Idaho and across the country are paying for the administration of these primary elections. These are government-run and taxpayer-funded,” said Nick Troiano, founding executive director of Unite America. “And that's the reason every voter should have the freedom to vote for any candidate in every election.”

During his recent visit to Idaho where he participated in a Hackfort panel discussion on Idaho’s primary system, Troiano visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice.

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. Good morning, I'm George Prentice. We're going to wade back into political waters for the next several minutes. Nick Troiano is here. He is the founding executive director of an organization called Unite America, which looks to foster what it calls a more functional government. Mr. Troiano is in Idaho to participate in one of Treefort's many events. In fact, it's part of Hackfort, and the event poses the question “Could Opening Idaho's Primaries Improve Governance?” Mr. Troiano, good morning.

NICK TROIANO: Great to be with you, George.

PRENTICE: The title of this event...It's almost hypothetical because my sense is, what you advocate for on a regular basis, on a daily basis, is to have more open government and more open primaries.

TROIANO: Yes, yes. And I recently wrote a book called The Primary Solution that makes an argument that party primaries have become the biggest solvable problem in our politics today.

PRENTICE: Solvable?

TROIANO: Yes. Emphasis on solvable because there are many problems, but this is the one. I believe that not only can we fix, but if we do, we'll make a significant impact on improving government.

PRENTICE: Do you have a sense of why we haven't fixed it, or is it that we've gotten to this space where we are more divided and…quite possibly dysfunctional in the process?

TROIANO: Well, a couple of things have shifted over the past two decades in particular, that have made party primaries a big driver of political division and dysfunction. You know, the first is that there has been a dramatic decrease in how competitive legislative districts are. The overwhelming number of them are lopsided so that they entirely favor Democrats or Republicans.

PRENTICE: Well, welcome to Idaho…. where we have a supermajority and the Republican Party has a closed primary

TROIANO: Which means that the November election is over in most places before it even begins.

PRENTICE: For certain. Our upcoming primary, quite frankly, has become a lot more critical.

TROIANO: So that's challenge No. 1: that the primary is the whole ball game. And challenge No. 2 is that fewer people are able to participate in these elections by virtue of the way that they are registered to vote. As you know, about a decade ago, Idaho closed its primaries. It used to be open so that anyone can participate. Today, it's only those that are registered with the Republican Party, which not only locks out the other party, but it also locks out the growing number of voters that are unaffiliated with either party, which happened to be close to a majority of veterans, a majority of young people, which means that these elections are not representative of a true majority.

PRENTICE: But the Constitution doesn't say anything about how parties choose their candidates, and the parties basically pick the rules. So how do you punch through that bag?

TROIANO: Yeah, the Constitution doesn't even talk about political parties. You know, the founders didn't imagine that there would be the parties, but they developed over time. And then they had to choose a way of selecting their standard bearer, which is how we invented the direct primary a century ago. But in the modern era, the challenge is that all citizens of Idaho and across the country are paying for the administration of these primary elections. And by virtue of that, these are not elections that are solely for these private organizations. These are government run and taxpayer funded. And that's the reason why we believe that every voter should have the freedom to vote for any candidate in every election.

PRENTICE: Is the intention to codify this, because, again, the party is going to do what the party is going to do.

TROIANO: And they ought to have their own discretion in the way that they recruit, support and endorse candidates. What the government does in its own election should be a separate question. And right now, across the state of Idaho, there are 2000 volunteers gathering over 60,000 signatures to put an initiative on this November's ballot that would open the primaries so that every voter can vote for any candidate in every election.

PRENTICE: I'm guessing you may have also heard that it's becoming increasingly difficult to put initiatives on ballots.

TROIANO: But the state, as many Western states do, has a proud tradition of the initiative process, where if the legislature is not being responsive to the will of the majority, there is a way for citizens to rise up and demand that kind of accountability. And that is how other states, including Alaska and Nevada in recent years, have pursued changes similar to what we're now seeing in Idaho. So it's entirely possible, and it's necessary if people are displeased with the outcomes that they're seeing in government and that and the options they're seeing on their ballot. The solution to that is to address the systemic cause of that, which is our party primary system.

PRENTICE: I don't think it's a big secret that a fair amount of people register as Republicans who are nowhere near identifying themselves truly as Republicans, just so they can participate in that primary. That's probably not too uncommon, but I'm also going to guess that's kind of a side door or a back door way of getting into this, right?

TROIANO: Yeah. And it's also one of the reasons why, when those opponents claim, oh, we can't do this, because then others are going to be trying to select our candidate. Well guess what? It's already happening and it's not producing good outcomes at that. And so the system that the state would move. Two under this proposed initiative would be the parties can use their own process to nominate a candidate, but the citizens of Idaho and their taxpayer funded elections ought to have a process by which every voter has a right to vote for anyone. And then secondly, and importantly, a majority winner is selected. Right now in our elections, you only need to win the most votes one more than your opponent, not a true majority. And our government was founded on the idea of a representative republic where we would elect leaders who would represent a majority of voters. We don't have that today. So that's the other part that this would initiative would do.

PRENTICE: And again, this effort... am I hearing you right? This effort is a state-by-state effort. It's not necessarily some national campaign.

TROIANO: Exactly. Which is part of the reason why I believe this problem is so solvable is that it doesn't require a constitutional amendment. It doesn't require an act of Congress. Every state, the Constitution says, can set the time, place, and manner of their elections. And so states have done this legislatively. States have done this at the ballot of changing their laws to better represent the true will of the majority.

PRENTICE: He is Nick Troiano, and he is the founding executive director of Unite America. Mr. Troiano, have a good time in your visit here to Idaho. We hope you come back often, but for now, thanks for giving us some time this morning.

TROIANO: Thanks so much.

Find reporter George Prentice@georgepren

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