If you wanted a recipe for a weird, volatile election, you’d cook up something like the upcoming May 15 primaries.
I’ve been following Idaho politics for more than a quarter century, and this is as unpredictable an election as I’ve ever seen.
Let’s take inventory of the X-factors — and why they could make for a low-turnout, high-turbulence election:
• New rules. By now, you all know about the historic GOP primary, open only to registered Republicans. Anyone is free to vote in the Democratic primary, regardless of political affiliation — but if you fill out a Republican or Democratic ballot, this becomes a matter of public record.
So much for the days of the open and completely private primary election. When Idahoans are required to publicly reveal their partisan leanings on primary day, some voters will inevitably stay home (or go home angry). And it’s not like turnout in “open” primaries has been all that great to begin with, ranging from 25.3 percent to 27.1 percent the past three elections.
• New polling places. Before people can figure out how they want to vote, they have to figure out where they vote. Ada County has overhauled its polling places for the first time in 30 years, an understandable effort to eliminate long lines at some crowded precincts. But these changes will be confusing — and that isn’t going to help turnout.
• A dull top of the ticket. Dull doesn’t even do it justice.
Neither U.S. Senate seat is on the ballot. The statewide offices, such as governor and state schools superintendent, don’t come around again until 2014. There is a state Supreme Court election, but Justice Dan Eismann is unopposed.
There are contested primaries for Congress, sort of. But incumbent GOP Reps. Raul Labrador and Mike Simpson and presumptive Democratic challengers Jimmy Farris and Nicole LeFavour are facing what appears to be token opposition. These races aren’t going to fire up casual voters, and that’s going to further drive down the turnout for county and legislative races.
• New faces, open races. Here’s a startling fact. There are 28 contested legislative primaries in Ada and Canyon counties, Republican and Democrat combined. Only 10 of these primaries have an incumbent — or a sitting House member looking to move to the Senate.
That’s a lot of open primaries. I don’t think this will affect turnout. But it means a lot of legislative races are tough to handicap — because they could be won, quietly but effectively, with a smart, energetic grassroots campaign.
• New boundaries. The primary will provide Idaho’s new legislative districts with their first road test. And incumbent lawmakers will have to win over some new voters.
For some, the geography has changed dramatically; Rep. Lenore Hardy Barrett, R-Challis, now has to run in a sprawling legislative district that now includes Gem, Boise and Valley counties. For Ada and Canyon county incumbents, the changes are more subtle. But redrawn districts tend to mitigate some of the advantages of incumbency, giving challengers a bit more of a chance to pull an upset.
• A short election season. That’s especially true for incumbent lawmakers. The Legislature was in session until March 29 — giving the incumbents less than seven weeks to campaign for the primary.
I spoke the other day with an incumbent lawmaker, one who is unopposed in the primary. This lawmaker said this whole campaign feels about two weeks behind schedule. Yard signs are sparse and campaigning hasn’t really picked up. Sounds about right.
In the past, primaries fell late in May — often the Tuesday after Memorial Day. That’s terrible timing if you want to encourage voter turnout, but it did give candidates that much more time to campaign, and give voters that much more time to study up on the races (or at least get clued into the idea that an election is on the horizon).
• Emotional issues. No surprise here, but when Republican and Democratic candidates alike campaign door-to-door, they say they are getting an earful on the ultrasound bill that dominated the 2012 legislative session. The economy is still a big issue. And the primary will be voters’ first chance to make a statement on Students Come First, the public education overhaul that defined the 2011 session.
These three emotional issues make it that much tougher to get a read on the voters’ mood.
All the signs point to low turnout on May 15. That alone makes for an unpredictable election. Factor in the other variables, and we could be looking at a surprising election night.