Congressman Raul Labrador, an architect of the Tuesday’s first-ever closed primary, is fighting two fellow Republicans, Gov. Butch Otter and Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, for their talk of revising the new law at the state GOP convention next month.
Otter and Ysursa long opposed requiring voters to declare themselves as Republicans in order to vote in the GOP primary. On Wednesday they cited the closed primary as the principal factor in the lowest primary turnout in Idaho history, 23 percent of registered voters. The record low had been 25 percent in 1988.
“I am really disappointed,” Otter told the Associated Press Wednesday. “I can’t help but to think, at least from my point of view, that there will be some discussion (at the state convention) of the primary. It will be, ‘What should we do? Should we make any changes?’”
Under the new law, it’s up to state party central committees to decide whether to open a primary to independent voters or those who affiliate with other parties. Democrats allow anyone vote in their primary, but the GOP opted to close its nominating election after winning a federal court case that convinced a reluctant Legislature to change the law last year.
Labrador said revisiting a fight that took three years to settle would be unwise. “I don’t think there is an appetite for going back after just one election to an open primary,” he said. “I think it would be a mistake. There’s no reason to divide the people we’re trying to unify at this point.”
Labrador cited figures from an Idaho Republican Party news release Wednesday, noting that GOP turnout was up almost 15 percent from four years ago, while Democratic turnout fell by a third from 2008. (The GOP, however, failed to note that 2012’s GOP turnout was down 9 percent from 2010.)
“If the party’s happy with the turnout of this election, I would disagree,” Ysursa said. “I’m not happy with it.
In an interview Thursday, Labrador objected to blaming the new closed primary.
“You have a bunch of factors,” he said. “There were no presidential candidates on the ticket, there were no senatorial candidates, there was not a competitive race in either the 1st or 2nd congressional district. Those are things that you have to factor into your analysis of why we had a low turnout. And to say that it was just because of the closed primary I think is malpractice on the part of anybody who makes that argument.”
“I think it worked,” Labrador continued. “There’s always been the wrong assumption that a closed primary is to purge the people of a certain group. That’s not true. The closed primary is so Republicans pick Republican candidates.”
Labrador jabbed at Ysursa, who as Idaho’s chief election official was the defendant in the federal lawsuit won by the Idaho GOP against the law that allowed voters to chose a partisan ballot in the privacy of the voting booth.
“You’re relying on a person who has been opposed to the closed primaries from the beginning, who told the people of Idaho that an open primary was not unconstitutional, so he was wrong about that,” Labrador said. “The state of Idaho had to spend a bunch of money to find out what everybody knew, which is that an open primary is unconstitutional. And now it’s sour grapes, where he’s trying to make a point that the data does not support.”
Ysursa fired back, saying it was his job to support Idaho’s open primary law that was enacted in 1971 to replace a convention and primary system. “It was a state law that was in question, not Ben Ysursa. My job is to uphold the state laws, and that’s exactly what my job is when the Legislature changed the law. No matter what primary it is, I want to see a big turnout.
“The reason that I feel the closed primary was a major factor in the decline is the operational experience of being in the secretary of state’s office, with my staff getting calls the past month-and-a-half repeatedly from people who would complain and express their angst about having to declare their political party affiliation. Some of them were not going to vote because of the requirement.”
While he conceded he can’t prove the major cause for the historic low was the closed primary, Ysursa bristled at Labrador’s suggestion he misreads voter behavior.
“I know where all the information is — it’s on my own website — about turnout,” he said. “You can argue that the Republican turnout was greater in other years and less in other years and whatever. I look at the total. You cannot argue with the fact that for a primary election this is the lowest in Idaho history.”
Ysursa, who has worked in the secretary of state’s office since 1975, also said he wanted it made clear that he, his office and county clerks across the state did their best to implement the new system.
“I don’t want anybody to insinuate that we didn’t do a 100 percent job to try to get people educated and out there,” he said. “Because elections are for voters.”
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