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Idaho Primary: Why The GOP Closed Its Ballot


When you vote in the primary next Tuesday, you must, for the first time, register for a political party.  That’s after the Idaho Republican Party sued the state for the right to close its primary.  The GOP argued party faithful, not crossover Democrats, should pick Republican candidates.

You have to go back five years ago, to June of 2007 to understand how it all began.  That’s when the Idaho Republican Party State Central Committee decided to close its primary to only registered Republicans.  Jonathan Parker is the Executive Director of the state’s Republican Party. “We do believe that it is our right to essentially let Republicans chose Republican candidates, Democrats choose Democrat candidates, as these are the candidates who will be our standard bearers, carrying the torch for the Republican Party in November.”

But Idaho code said state primaries should be open.  So the party sued the state to close its primary.  Ben Ysursa is a Republican, and also Idaho’s Secretary of State.  That put him on the other end of the GOP lawsuit.  “There was a conflict between party rule, and state law.  And that’s what lead to the lawsuit.”

The Republican Party won the lawsuit last year.  Now the state law says all primaries are closed, unless a party chooses otherwise.  According to the website Fair Vote which tracks the primary system nationwide, 18 states have what are considered open Congressional Primaries.  The rest, including most of the West and now Idaho, have closed or “semi-closed” primaries.

Parker says the GOP closed its primary because it believed there was evidence of crossover voting. “Our members believe that Democrats were openly crossing over, voting in the Republican Party, picking our candidates, and essentially just tampering with the process.”

“It was really a ridiculous notion,” says Idaho Democratic Party chairman Larry Grant. “They tried to tell everybody the reason they wanted to do that was because Democrats were crossing over and being spoilers in the Republican Primary.”

Grant says there was never a Democratic mandate to cross over and vote for someone in the GOP primary.  But he does say, in local races, a tiny fraction of Democrats have done this.  “And in many areas those races are decided in the Republican Primary.  So there are folks, I’m sure there are folks now, folks that are good Democrats that have registered as Republicans so they can vote in those local races.”

Grant says this isn’t really about crossover voting, it’s about in-fighting in the Republican Party.   “This is more evidence of the continuing effort of the conservatives in the Republican party to purge their party of moderates.”

That’s how Boise State Political Science Professor Gary Moncrief sees it.  He says on a national scale this isn’t unusual - for a faction of either political party to push for a closed primary.  “The party that leads that charge is often, in fact almost always, the majority party in the state,” says Moncrief. “In some states it’s the Democratic Party and the faction within the party that tends to lead that charge tends to be the more liberal faction.  And in the Republican Party, if they’re the ones leading the charge, it tends to be the more conservative faction.”

GOP head Jonathan Parker says closing the primary was contentious within his party.  But he thinks the change is for the best.  “We do believe that it will make the system a little more pure, the process a little more honest and at the end of the day, we think it will be best for all political parties involved.”

Democratic Party Chairman Larry Grant doesn’t agree with that.  “We’ve chosen to keep our primary open, so if you’re a disgruntled Republican or Independent you’re certainly welcome to come vote in our primaries.”

Secretary of State Ben Ysursa says now that the fighting over a closed primary is over, his worry is getting voters to understand the changes and to get them to vote, regardless of political party.  


Copyright 2012 Boise State Public Radio

As Senior Producer of our live daily talk show Idaho Matters, I’m able to indulge my love of storytelling and share all kinds of information (I was probably a Town Crier in a past life). My career has allowed me to learn something new everyday and to share that knowledge with all my friends on the radio.

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