Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Purifying politics trampled voter rights

When Republicans in the Legislature changed the law to close their party's primary elections, they weren't thinking about the effect it could have in small counties.

Or, they gave it short shrift, confident in the knowledge that their party reigns supreme along the nation's northern spine of the Rocky Mountains.

They thought only that a closed primary—open to voting only by card-carrying Republicans—would weed out waffling independents and sneaky Democrats who might cross over and somehow taint the purity of the vote.

Closing the primary was the Republican right wing's attempt to rid itself of moderates—those folks who might be tempted to listen to a contrary view or to work across the aisle.

Conservative party operatives who knew that primary elections historically attract low voter turnouts saw closed primaries as a golden opportunity to gain control and install like-minded legislators and governors in Boise.

It remains to be seen if closed primaries work to the right's advantage. Other states have seen moderates rally in defense of moderate candidates who can attract voters from a larger bandwidth in the general election. That could happen in Idaho.

In the meantime, closed primaries pose a problem in small counties where elections are often decided in a primary.

Blaine County narrowly missed facing that situation this spring. There are no contested races on the Democratic side. However, had a single candidate for sheriff, who previously ran as a Republican, not decided to run as an independent, the race for that office would be decided in the upcoming May primary.

In the time before the closed primary, a contested race for office on the Republican side and no contested races on the other side would have led unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in the Republican primary.

And why not? Why shouldn't all voters have an opportunity to select a county's chief law enforcement officer?

The open primary system would have let that happen, and to our mind, with no ill effects. But no more.

When they changed the law, Idaho Republicans seemed driven to search for a way to find "pure" candidates who could cleave to the party line even in the face of facts to the contrary and who could resist opportunities to compromise.

The fact that closed primaries would disenfranchise a majority of voters from time to time—even Republican voters in some cases—in lopsided ballot situations made no difference.

Eyes closed, Republicans stampeded through the chute in the name of purifying politics and trampled voter rights in the process.

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