Closed Primaries and Extremism

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

How do we know elected officials actually represent us? The recent primary election will push the Idaho Legislature even further toward political extremism, but do legislators truly reflect the people they were elected to represent?

As a constitutional law professor, I often repeated the now hackneyed phrase that the right to vote is preservative of all other rights. But the devil dwells in details. So, a more specific query: what voting system produces candidates who most accurately represent their constituents?

A host of political scientists characterize “closed primaries” as a voting system that facilitates extreme candidates, particularly in states like Idaho where one party has a super majority. Closed primaries bar voters who are not formally affiliated with a political party from participating in that party’s primary.

Indeed, it’s a system that effectively truncates the right to vote itself for many Idahoans. There are approximately 270,000 independent voters in Idaho. Two weeks ago, when independent voters went to the polls in the primary election, they could only vote for three races. All three were judges. All three were running unopposed. Conversely, voters formally affiliated with the republican party decided who will be state senators, state representatives, our U.S. congressional representative, county commissioner, sheriff, and county prosecutor.

The number of “independent” voters is growing nationwide, and as a result, states like Idaho that shut out independent voters produce elections that are more and more insular and candidates who are less and less representative.

Back to the original question: How do we know that our elected officials accurately represent us? According to the Idaho Policy Institute’s annual survey, “Idahoans trust public libraries and librarians (69%) to choose the books that are made available in them.” And yet, the Idaho Legislature passed a law exposing libraries to civil liability for providing books that the Idaho Legislature deems harmful.

Even hot button issues like abortion demonstrate a gap between what Idahoans want and what the legislature is doing. The same survey revealed that only one-third of Idahoans favor Idaho’s existing abortion law, while 58% favor expanding exceptions to it.

Partisan closed primaries motivate legislators to cater to a narrow and extreme slice of the electorate rather than govern in the public interest. The Idaho Freedom Foundation, for example, publishes score cards for each legislator as a “purity test” to determine fealty to a partisan agenda. The Idaho Republican Party censured several republican lawmakers for not following the platform closely enough, including House Majority Leader, Megan Blanksma, who was ousted from her leadership post for failing to perfectly follow the will of party leaders.

By contrast, candidates in an open primary have less fealty to their party’s agenda, and can run based on the issues facing their constituency. States that have open primaries allow all citizens to vote in all elections, regardless of party affiliation, and as a result, elect leaders who focus on solving real problems rather than manufacturing controversies that turn us against each other.

Most of Idaho’s legislators are beneficiaries of the closed primary system and have no appetite to change it. But Idahoans can do so themselves. A voter initiative will likely be on the ballot this November. It proposes open primaries and is endorsed by a number of prominent Democrats and Republicans. Open primaries do not give more power to Republicans or Democrats; they give more power to voters, and they represent a better way to ensure that our representatives are indeed representative.

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