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News / Northwest

Would open primaries curb extremism? Top Idaho Republicans back ballot initiative

By Ryan Suppe, Idaho Statesman
Published: September 14, 2023, 9:47am
3 Photos
Former Idaho Attorney General Jim Jones and Idaho Republicans, including former Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, gather at the Statehouse, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, to support an open primary, and a call for reasonable politics in the state.
Former Idaho Attorney General Jim Jones and Idaho Republicans, including former Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, gather at the Statehouse, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, to support an open primary, and a call for reasonable politics in the state. (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman via AP) Photo Gallery

BOISE, Idaho — High-profile Idaho Republicans, including a former governor and lieutenant governor, have endorsed a proposed ballot initiative that would overhaul primary elections and install ranked-choice voting in the state.

A coalition of advocacy groups are collecting signatures to place a question on next year’s ballot. It would ask voters whether Idaho should eliminate partisan primaries and use ranked-choice voting in general elections.

While the Idaho Republican Party has condemned the measure, a new group, Republicans for Open Primaries, has formed to support it. Among the 116 members are former Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and First Lady Lori Otter.

“It’s time to bring some civility back into the political discourse,” Otter said during a news conference Wednesday at the Idaho Capitol in Boise. “I’m confident that one of the ways to do that is to pass this initiative.”

How ranked-choice voting works

The initiative would create a “top four” primary election. All candidates, regardless of party, would participate in the same primary, and the top four vote-getters would advance to the general election. Currently, non-Republicans are barred from participating in GOP primaries.

General election voters would then rank candidates in their preferred order. A candidate who collects more than 50% of first-place votes wins the election. But if no candidate reaches that threshold, a runoff counting process is triggered. The candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, and their votes are reallocated to the candidates listed second. That process repeats until a candidate surpasses 50%.

Advocates say the process would curb extremism in the GOP by forcing candidates to appeal to a broad range of voters. Idaho GOP Party Chairwoman Dorothy Moon has said the scheme would “silence the voices of conservative voters.”

“Rather than ensure our elections are safe and secure, Reclaim Idaho wants to complicate our elections with California-style voting systems,” Moon said in a news release last month. “In short, Reclaim wants to eliminate the Republican Party and turn Idaho into a Rocky Mountain San Francisco.”

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Lori Otter on Wednesday sharply criticized Moon, after the state party this summer eliminated voting authority on the party’s executive committee for three groups that represent Republican women and young voters.

“Those are the women that stuff envelopes, they wear the red jackets, they pound on doors, they canvass neighborhoods and they are the Republican Party,” Lori Otter said during the news conference. “Shame on the Republican Party for taking that voice away. … Shame on Dorothy Moon.”

Supporters say passing initiative would curb extremism

Several groups are pushing the proposed initiative, including Reclaim Idaho, the nonprofit known for its successful initiative to expand Medicaid eligibility, as well as the Idaho Task Force of Veterans for Political Innovation, North Idaho Women, Represent US Idaho and the Hope Coalition.

Former Idaho Lt. Gov. Jack Riggs is also backing the effort but was unable to attend the news conference Wednesday. In a news release, the North Idaho resident said traditional Republicans have been forced out of the GOP in his region while the party has been overtaken by “bullies” who are uninterested in addressing “real issues.”

“They dwell on national culture war issues — villainizing librarians, doctors, teachers and traditional conservatives — while ignoring roads, infrastructure and public schools,” Riggs said in the release. “The Open Primaries Initiative will change all of that, as they well know.”

A list of Republicans for Open Primaries members includes 25 former state lawmakers along with a previous state superintendent, supreme court justice and attorney general, state treasurer and local elected leaders, including mayors, sheriffs and county prosecutors.

Republican Party leaders also joined, including founding members of the North Idaho Republicans and former state party vice-chair Sandy Patano, who served as state director for former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig.

Butch Otter noted that former elected officials make up the bulk of the list. Otter said he’s spoken to current officials about the initiative but declined to mention names or specifics on the discussions.

“I expect the other side that is against opening our primary … to say, ‘Well, they’re a bunch of has-beens,’” Otter said. “Well, I’m a has-been, and I look at our political climate today, and I’d rather be a has-been than a wannabe.”

Advocates hope to place the initiative on the ballot for the November 2024 election. In order to qualify, the group must collect signatures from 6% of Idaho voters who were registered for the last general election — nearly 63,000 — along with signatures from 6% of registered voters in 18 of 35 legislative districts. The deadline is May 1, 2024.

©2023 Idaho Statesman. Visit at idahostatesman.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.