Idaho Secretary of State Lawrence Denney, who as House Speaker was instrumental in bringing the closed-primary system that discourages large numbers from voting, is now working with colleagues from other states to promote higher voter turnouts in primary elections.
He and his fellow secretaries are not having much success. They’ve talked concepts such as vote by mail, internet voting and making voters automatically registered to vote. In Idaho, voter participation in primaries is low, regardless of the format.
“Lack of participation is not unique to Idaho; it’s happening nationwide. If we find the thing that does work, you’ll see it in every state,” Denney says.
“Maybe we need to pass a law saying that people must vote,” he said.
Denney was kidding, of course. But if there was such a law, half of the state’s voters would be in violation; 40 percent are registered as Republicans and 10 percent are Democrats. The other 50 percent are locked out of participating in the primaries.
Don’t think that open primaries are a panacea for higher turnout. The percentage of participation is in the 20s regardless of whether primaries are open, or closed.
So let’s explore another possibility. Just get rid of primary elections, period. Or, if primaries are held, then let the political parties pay for them. Denney has mixed views on the subject.
“If primary elections are truly a nominating process, then the parties ought to pay for it,” he said. “But in Idaho, it can be argued that primary elections serve the public’s interest.”
I fully agree with Denney on his first point. The Legislature will lean with him on the second.
There is a way around this dilemma. The Lewiston Tribune’s Marty Trillhaase, my longtime friend and colleague, has written editorials promoting a top-two primary system that would invite all comers, regardless of affiliation. The top two vote-getters then would square off in the fall election. More often than not in Idaho, it would put two Republicans against one another in the general election – which, obviously wouldn’t sit well with Democrats. But Trillhaase, who has clear liberal leanings, makes some good points.
“It’s good for the voter. No longer would he have to register with a party to cast a ballot,” Trillhaase wrote two years ago. “It’s good for the center-right coalition of the GOP. No longer would an establishment Republican fear getting ‘primaried’ on the right. As long as he came in second in the spring, he could appeal to a larger, more diverse electorate in the fall campaign.”
Dave Ammons, a spokesman for Washington’s secretary of state’s office, says the top-two system works well in his state. The top-two concept, along with vote by mail, has given Washington state high turnouts – typically, almost 40 percent in primaries and nearly 80 percent in the general.
Top-two doesn’t get high reviews in all states. In California, it’s referred to as a “jungle” primary, which will produce a huge logjam as candidates line up to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer. Two candidates with percentages in the teens could end up meeting in the fall elections. It’s hardly a formula for selecting the best and brightest from both parties.
Conventional wisdom suggests that a top-two primary would favor more moderate candidates. I’m not sure if that would be the case.
If the top-two system were in place during the last governor’s race, we would have seen Gov. Butch Otter, State Sen. Russ Fulcher and Democrat A.J. Balukoff on the primary ballot. Fulcher might have grabbed the second slot, and won the general election as stories were exploding late in the campaign about scandals within the Otter administration. Balukoff, as a Democrat, was in no position to capitalize. Fulcher, as a Republican, might have been seen as a viable alternative.
So will we see a top-two system in Idaho? Probably not. Denney is no fan of the concept, and there’s no support for the idea building in the Legislature.
So, let’s go back to the first option. Just get rid of government-funded primary elections and call them for what they are – a waste of everyone’s time, money and effort.