Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said Wednesday that record-low turnout in Tuesday’s primary could prompt his Republican Party to revisit its decision to limit the primary to registered GOP voters.
“I do believe it had that negative effect of a couple of points,” Ysursa said. “I think there will be some constructive dialogue, including a discussion of whether unaffiliated voters should be able vote Republican.”
Unofficial returns showed turnout at 23 percent, the figure Ysursa predicted. That’s 2 percentage points lower than the former record for low turnout, 25 percent in 1988. The final vote totals will be official at the May 30 state canvas.
Ysursa said he discussed the issue with GOP Gov. Butch Otter on Wednesday, “We’re disappointed, obviously.”
Otter and Ysursa both opposed the closed primary. Otter's spokesman, Jon Hanian, said Otter said “it would not surprise him if the issue of the closed primary was revisited by the party, given the low turnout and some of the other issues/concerns raised during this process.”
Ysursa said the matter could be raised at the state party convention in June, where the rule limiting participation to affiliated Republicans could be amended. But Hanian said Otter “has not indicated where that would happen.” A change also could be made by the Legislature, which enacted the closed primary law last year after the Republican Party won a federal court case.
Ysursa and Otter both opposed the closed primary, but backed down after the party won the lawsuit. “
“I’ve always been in favor of the open primary and still am,” Ysursa said. “I think it gives voters the privacy that Idahoans cherish.”
Turnout in Ada County dropped to 17 percent, below the average in the last three elections of 21 percent. Ysursa speculated that may be attributed to the fact the media covered the new rules extensively. “People knew about the process better and were turned off by it, that’s just my pure conjecture.”
Ada County Chief Deputy Clerk Phil McGrane said the factors are complex.
"The disappointing thing from an election official's standpoint is that a lot of time, effort, and money goes into putting on an election, so you want to see people come out and vote. I looked it up this morning, in March, we had a cumulative turnout of 26.9% between the Boise and Meridian School Districts, which encompasses all but 14,000 Ada County voters. It’s tough to say why people showed up then, but not now. It may just be the combination of all of the changes. One would think that more election awareness would produce greater participation, but maybe not."
Turnout in Canyon County, which had two hot county commission contests and an open sheriff's seat, was considerably better, 26 percent.
Both Ysursa and McGrane agreed that voter education made for a well-run election.
"From a technical, administrative viewpoint the election went well," said Ysursa, Idaho's chief election official. "I give credit to the county clerks."
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