Idaho Democratic leader calls for special legislative session to clarify presidential primary process

By Clark Corbin and Mia Maldonado, Idaho Capital Sun, April 18, 2023

Some progressives and conservatives alike are raising concerns about a new Idaho law from the recent 2023 legislative session that eliminates the state’s March presidential primary election. 

With little debate or vetting, the Idaho Legislature overwhelmingly passed House Bill 138, which was pushed by Secretary of State Phil McGrane and Rep. Dustin Manwaring, R-Pocatello, as a way to consolidate elections and save the state about $2.7 million every four years.

Idaho had been conducting its presidential primary election on the second Tuesday in March. Manwaring and McGrane said their law was designed to eliminate the March presidential primary election and move it back to another state election day: the third Tuesday in May. 

But some Republican and Democratic party officials in Idaho are now saying the new law eliminates the presidential primary election altogether in Idaho. 

“The stated intent was to move the presidential primary to May but what ACTUALLY happened is the March presidential primary was stricken from the law but NOT added to the May primary,” Kootenai County Republican Central Committee Chairman Brent Regan wrote in an April 12 editorial. “Even the definition of what ‘Presidential primary’ means was stricken from the law. Oops.”

“This is what happens when you rush legislation (through) the process without first building consensus and support,” Regan added.

Regan also serves as chairman of the Idaho Republican Party’s rules committee and serves as the chairman of the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s board of directors. 

In his editorial, Regan listed several possible scenarios for what could happen next as a result of the law’s passage. Regan said there is a risk that presidential candidates or the Republican National Committee could sue the state of Idaho seeking access to the ballot. Regan also speculated that the law could force Idaho to move back to presidential nominating caucuses. Finally, Regan speculated that Gov. Brad Little or the Idaho Legislature could call a special session of the Idaho Legislature to fix the law. 

“Time will tell,” Regan wrote.

Bill addressing technical correction died when legislative session adjourned

House Assistant Minority Leader Lauren Necochea, D-Boise, said the problem is that the Idaho Legislature failed to pass Senate Bill 1186, which she described as a technical correction to the presidential primary law. The Idaho Senate voted 24-10 to pass Senate Bill 1186, but the bill never advanced to the House floor for a vote and died when the session adjourned. 

“Idaho Democrats supported the consolidation of Idaho’s presidential primary and other primary elections to save public dollars while allowing voter participation,” Necochea said in a written statement. “Unfortunately, far-right politicians blocked a needed technical correction to the bill, taking away Idahoans’ right to vote for their preferred presidential nominee.”

Necochea, who also serves as the chairwoman of the Idaho Democratic Party, said she supports calling a special session to address the issue. 

“The way to ensure Idaho voters – of every party – have their say in our presidential nomination process is to hold a special legislative session and reinstate the presidential primary election,” Necochea added.

Could Idaho see a special legislative session?

When the bill was first introduced, the Idaho Capital Sun described how its passage could push Idaho’s presidential primary back until after the presidential nominations were already mathematically clinched. 

The Idaho House of Representatives voted 61-6 to pass the bill on Feb.24, and the Idaho Senate voted 23-11 to pass the bill on March 23. Little signed the bill into law a week later on March 30. 

House Bill 138 is written so that it would take effect July 1. That means the law’s changes and consequences would be in effect for the 2024 presidential election if the issue is not addressed by the Idaho Legislature or a legal challenge.

In November, Idaho voters passed Senate Joint Resolution 102, an amendment to the Idaho Constitution that allows the Idaho Legislature to call itself back into session. Under the amendment to the Idaho Constitution, the speaker of the Idaho House and president pro tem of the Idaho Senate would convene a special session of the Idaho Legislature upon receiving a joint written petition from at least 60% of the members of both legislative chambers specifying the subjects to be considered during a special session. In such cases, the special session would begin no later than 15 days after legislative leaders receive the petition. Just as before the election, Idaho’s governor may also call for a special session of the Idaho Legislature and specify the subjects to be addressed. 

Efforts to reach Speaker of the House Mike Moyle, R-Star, were unsuccessful Tuesday. 

‘In the hands of the political parties’: Idaho Secretary of State says parties must find consensus

Secretary of State Phil McGrane told the Idaho Capital Sun in a phone interview Tuesday that he is unaware of any conversations suggesting there would be a special session to address the elimination of the primary. 

McGrane said Regan’s concerns are true, adding that Senate Bill 1186 — the trailer bill allowing candidates to file to run in the state’s presidential primary in May — was necessary to consolidate the elections, but the bill died when the legislative session adjourned. 

“There were technical issues with the bill in terms of the mechanics on how a candidate would file to run for president, so in effect it definitely eliminated the March presidential preference primary but didn’t have all of the necessary pieces for the primary to occur in the May election,” he said.

McGrane said the state cannot run the election without the Idaho Legislature making changes. He said political parties can choose to hold a caucus, a variation of a caucus or to hold their own primary.

“Both 138 and 1186 should have passed,” he said. “That would have just been the simplest and the parties could still choose what to do and we would have a main primary for any political party that wanted one.”

McGrane said an alternative fix would be to vote on Senate Bill 1186 at the beginning of the 2024 legislative session, but he is concerned that political parties and voters would not have enough time to know enough about possible candidates.

“Everyone is looking at the current situation and trying to figure out what the best resolution is, but from what I gather there isn’t a consensus on what that resolution is,” he said. “A lot of it now is in the hands of the political parties. They are now in the driver’s seat, not the state.”

FEATURED IMAGE:  The Idaho State Capitol building in Boise on May 5, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

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