BOISE - A federal judge on Wednesday declared Idaho's 38-year-old system for holding open primaries unconstitutional and handed conservatives in the state Republican Party a victory in their bid to make sure only registered party faithful take part in primary contests.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill deals specifically with Republican primary elections and paves the way for the GOP controlled Legislature to begin working on changing state law to change the rules for casting ballots in those early nominating contests.
The decision was cheered by Republican party leaders, who for years have complained the open primary system allowed Democrats and independents to cross over and skew results in some of the most competitive primary races.
"This decision will allow the Idaho Republican Party to decide how to conduct its primary elections," Republican Party Chairman Norm Semanko said in a statement. "We only ask, and have a right to expect, that members of the Democrat Party or other political parties will not choose our candidates for us."
The court's ruling was jeered by the Idaho Democratic Party.
"Public elections are not meant for private clubs. Once again the Republican party is purging their ranks and requiring a loyalty oath to participate in the voting process," said Larry Grant, chair of the Idaho Democratic Party.
Grant pointed to a Boise State University survey which found that 42 percent of the state's voters consider themselves independent. In a closed primary, those independents must either declare a political party or forego voting in a primary altogether.
Those outside the two political parties found the ruling to be too exclusionary.
"The Republican Party asked the court to give it the right to redesign Idaho's electoral process and relegate independents to the 'no man's land' of a closed primary system," said Jackie Salit of IndependentVoting.org, a national organization with an Idaho affiliate which supports independent voters.
Idaho state Rep. Marge Chadderdon, R-Coeur d'Alene, agreed that a closed primary could disenfranchise independent voters.
"They really don't have a place to go," she said.
However, Chadderdon does not believe election outcomes in North Idaho would be any different, whether primaries were opened or closed.
"I think people know their candidate today more than they used to," said Chadderdon. "They know who they are voting for."
The state party filed its lawsuit two years ago, setting up a legal and philosophical tussle with some of the state's top elected Republican officials.
The secretary of state, Republican Ben Ysursa, defended the state's open primary system in court, and Republican Gov. Butch Otter at one point questioned the merits of dismantling an election process that has enabled Republicans of all stripes to dominate the statehouse and Idaho's four congressional seats.
Ysursa called the ruling disappointing and said no decision has yet been made whether to appeal.
"My personal feelings on this have been clear throughout: I don't know what's broken here," Ysursa told The Associated Press. "I think the Republican Party's success in recent years has been quite remarkable with the open primary system. It's pretty hard to argue against the success we've had at the polls."
Idaho Republicans even strengthened their stranglehold on Gem State politics last year. In the current Legislature, Republicans hold 28 seats in the Senate, compared to 7 Democrats. In the House, the GOP has 57 of the 70 seats. Republicans own all the top elected state offices and all four Congressional seats.
But a growing conservative wing in the party was far from satisfied, and contended that voters they call "Republican lite" or identify more with moderates and independents hold too much sway in the primary races.
"We've got a lot of folks who are 'Republican legislators' who are not as conservative as the Republican party would like them to be," said Cornel Rasor, chairman of Bonner County's Central GOP Committee.
Rasor said a closed primary would thwart Democrats from crossing over and voting for less conservative Republicans in a state that mostly elects Republicans to office.
Laura Bry, chair of the Bonner County Democratic Central Committee, contends Winmill is putting the Republican Party's rights above an individual Idahoan's right to vote. Bry said she talks with a lot of folks who consider themselves independents who vote the candidate, not the party.
"This is a voter suppression tactic that limits individual voting rights," she said.
During a trial last fall, party attorneys claimed the open primary, by its very nature, infringed on their First Amendment right to free association. They argued that the open primary lumps die-hard, registered Republicans in the same voting bloc as non-members.
Too often, the open primary system diluted the nominating process by forcing candidates in tight races to moderate their message to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters.
Winmill agreed, saying the right to free association is also founded on the right not to be required to associate with certain groups. He also validated evidence presented at trial showing that past primaries were influenced by crossover voting by Democrats and independents.
"Idaho's current open primary system, as applied, forces the Idaho Republican Party to associate with, and have their nominees and positions determined by those who have refused to affiliate with the party," Winmill wrote. "The current primary system in Idaho imposes a severe burden on the Idaho Republican Party's First Amendment rights."
Ysursa said he expects legislation will emerge in coming weeks to close the GOP primary.
Senator Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said Winmill's ruling is neither right nor wrong. It's merely a different way of doing business, although it does guarantee that the party, rather than the general public, will decide which candidates represent the GOP ticket.
"If that's the way they want to select their candidate, that's what we should be doing," said Hammond. "I'm a Republican. What right to I have to tell the Democrats who they should have as their candidate?"
Hagadone News Network staff writers Tom Hassingler and Keith Kinnaird contributed to this report.