The final numbers are in, and it’s official. The May 15 Idaho primary election set a sad record.
Only 24.4 percent of registered voters navigated the confusing new rules and procedures — making the turnout the lightest in state history. The previous low-water mark, 25 percent, occurred in 1988.
Will 24.4 percent represent the new normal? We may have a better idea later this month, when Idaho Republicans hold their first state convention in the closed primary era.
The way things are looking now, one of two things could happen. Idaho Republicans will either have a public — and potentially ugly — debate over the merits of the closed primary, or they will dance around the issue in the interest of harmony and party solidarity.
Republicans have strong opinions about the first-ever closed primary — which required voters to publicly align with the GOP in order to vote in the primary. And those opinions show no signs of softening.
The longstanding opponents of the closed primary are still in their camp. Gov. Butch Otter has said he hopes the convention will revisit the matter. Same for Secretary of State Ben Ysursa — who, as Idaho’s chief elections officer, advocates tirelessly for maximizing voter participation. On Thursday, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, weighed in with a no-nonsense criticism of many within his own party, a guest opinion in the Post Register in Idaho Falls. “One can spin the numbers in many directions, but the fact is the closed Republican primary discouraged many people from voting — which is exactly what many of the proponents of the closed primary intended.”
On the other side of the debate are the Republicans who are spinning these numbers. These party leaders say the paltry turnout does not reflect dissatisfaction with the closed primary, but instead illustrates that fewer Democrats are voting in their party’s primary.
And 1st Congressional District Rep. Raul Labrador, perhaps the GOP’s highest-profile advocate for the closed primary, minced no words in his criticism of Ysursa — and pundits like me, who hold to the theory that the state’s elections umpire actually knows his stuff when it comes to voter behavior.
“You have a bunch of factors,” Labrador said recently. “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.”
So, when Republicans gather in Twin Falls in three weeks, will the party’s bigwigs really want to go here? Will they really want a floor fight — between the Republicans who never wanted a closed primary in the first place, and the Republicans who have finally gotten what they wanted, and have no interest in going back to an open primary?
I wouldn’t be surprised if Republicans do a little bit of conflict avoidance.
But I’ll tell you this: One argument that won’t persuade closed-primary advocates is the turnout number. That’s a non-starter.
Hill has his party pegged precisely. The Republicans who support a closed primary couldn’t care less about voter participation. To the contrary. They don’t want more people voting in GOP primaries. They only want the right people voting in GOP primaries.
Yes, the May primary was a record-setter, and not in a good way. But the question is, who cares?