Idaho Legislature mistakenly eliminated the state’s presidential primary election earlier this year
By Clark Corbin, Idaho Capital Sun, August 2, 2023
Several Idaho Republicans said concerns are building that the party’s planned move to a presidential nominating caucus in 2024 will reduce voter turnout, alienate voters and could divide the party.
After the Idaho Legislature seemingly unintentionally eliminated the presidential primary election during the 2023 legislative session, the Idaho Republican Party voted in June to instead hold a presidential nominating caucus on the first Saturday in March, which falls on March 4 next year.
Unlike in primary elections, where voters may choose between voting at their neighborhood polling place throughout the day, voting early or voting absentee, Republican voters would have to appear in person at a set time, in a handful of specific locations on a Saturday in early March for a caucus that may take hours to finish and may not be located anywhere near their neighborhood polling place.
There are no exceptions to the in-person rule, meaning members of the armed forces serving out of state and people serving a church mission out of state would not be able to have a vote for the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2024.
Those same in-person caucus requirements also mean people who are working, people who are traveling, people who are ill or physically unable to attend and people who are unable to find child care won’t be able to vote for the Republican presidential nominee process.
The physical sites for a caucus will be picked based on the county or legislative district, so depending on how many caucus sites there are in a given county or legislative district, it may be extremely difficult to attend for voters without reliable transportation. (The individual caucus sites have yet to be publicly identified.)
“Most Idahoans are not used to that (caucus) process,” Rep. Brent Crane, the Republican chairman of the Idaho Legislature House State Affairs Committee said in a telephone interview. “In recent history — in the last 20 years — we’ve only tried it one time, in 2012. I think one of the concerns raised is, is the Republican Party going to disenfranchise voters because they are not used to the caucus style system and therefore they don’t go? And that is an internal party debate going on right now.”
Trailer bill could have fixed issue concerning Idaho’s primary election date
Crane is chairman of the legislative committee where Senate Bill 1186, a “trailer bill” designed to fix the issue that eliminated the presidential primary election, failed due a lack of a motion from anyone on the committee to advance it.
As a candidate and as a voter, Crane has participated in primary elections and the 2012 caucus.
“I did not enjoy the caucus, candidly,” Crane said.
As policy, Crane favors consolidating elections down to two elections per year, and he prefers in-person voting on Election Day at a voter’s neighborhood polling place. But Crane said one of the reasons he prefers the primary over the caucus is there are opportunities for voters like armed services members and missionaries to participate in the primary election even if they can’t be there in person, whereas there are no such options with a caucus.
Tracey Wasden, president of the Idaho Federation of Republican Women and a longtime Republican from Canyon County, also has bad memories of the Canyon County GOP presidential caucus from 2012.
“I want to say it lasted between seven or eight hours,” Wasden said in a telephone interview. “And imagine if you’re handicapped and finding a parking place and getting into the Idaho Center and being there for that many hours. What do you eat? What do you drink? It’s crazy, and they’d go through this process of speeches and yelling out and putting coins in a bucket and then one candidate is dropping off. It was not a positive at all.”
David Adler, a political scientist who has studied constitutional law and Idaho politics for decades, said caucuses result in lower turnout than primary elections.
“A caucus just takes more work,” Adler, the president of Idaho Falls-based Alturas Institute, said in a telephone interview. “People have to leave their homes for a designated period of time, maybe lasting hours into the evening, and make a conscious choice to abandon alternative plans. If (former President Donald J.) Trump is dominating, voters may ask themselves, ‘Why go if he is just going to win?’”
“The time element is another reason, and the primaries are just so easy,” Adler added. “Our system has made participating in the primaries so easy by allowing people to vote throughout the day or even voting early or sending in your ballot by mail.”
Turnout data is on Adler’s side. The Spokesman-Review reported just 44,672 people participated in the Idaho Republican Party’s 2012 presidential caucus. When the Idaho Republican Party switched back to the presidential primary election in 2016, more than 225,000 voters participated, according to the Idaho Secretary of State’s office.
While participation would be lower, maybe significantly lower in a caucus, Adler said one advantage the caucus has over a primary is political excitement — so long as there is a competitive race.
“The idea of a caucus has the potential to be exciting in other states, particularly Iowa,” Adler said. “It’s retail politics; people actually vote with their feet as they move from group to group. There can be a dynamic, exciting atmosphere as people listen to speeches made on behalf of candidates.”
Tom Luna, the former chairman of the Idaho Republican Party and former elected superintendent of public instruction, also is concerned about the party’s planned move to a caucus.
“This is just one more way to reduce the number of people who will decide who our nominees are,” Luna said in a telephone interview. “We have 600,000 registered Republicans in Idaho. The caucus – because of the logistics – it reduces the amount of people who participate down to 3-to-5% of that. That is the number we are talking about who attend a caucus.”
Nationally, there were just five states that held either a Republican or Democratic caucus in 2020 — Iowa, Nevada, North Dakota, Kentucky and Wyoming, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
How did the Idaho Legislature eliminate the presidential primary election?
Unlike the growing demand from Idahoans to address the state’s rising property tax issues, changing the presidential primary election was not an issue that Idahoans were speaking out about before the 2023 legislative session.
Instead, the Idaho Legislature essentially backed its way into eliminating the presidential primary and then didn’t correct the problem when alarm bells went off.
Idaho Secretary of State Phil McGrane sponsored House Bill 138, which he promoted as a bill to save the state $2.7 million every four years by moving the presidential primary election back from March to May.
McGrane’s bill passed the Idaho Legislature comfortably, clearing the Idaho House 61-6, and it then passed the Idaho Senate 23-11. Gov. Brad Little signed the bill into law March 30.
The problem is, the mechanics of the bill eliminated the March presidential primary election altogether but did not move it to May.
Meanwhile, the Idaho Legislature passed House Bill 292, a major property tax bill that also eliminated the March election date for school districts, which had been able to run bond issues and levy elections on the same election date as the presidential primary election.
McGrane and state officials realized there was a problem with House Bill 138, the presidential primary consolidation bill, after it passed the Idaho House. The Legislature then introduced Senate Bill 1186, the so-called trailer bill designed to fix the problem with House Bill 138 by actually connecting language about nominating a party’s presidential candidate to the May primary election.
The Idaho Senate passed the trailer bill 24-10 on March 23, but the trailer bill died in Crane’s committee, the House State Affairs Committee, and the Idaho Legislature adjourned for the year March 31.
Before adjournment, Idaho Republican Party Chairwoman Dorothy Moon came out in opposition to the trailer bill. Moon said she opposed the trailer bill because she didn’t want to move the primary back from March to May, which would push Idaho’s primary back to later in the presidential nomination process.
“I did testify in the House State Affairs Committee against the trailer bill, as the Idaho GOP was never consulted about HB 138 in the first place and the state party worked very hard in 2015 to establish a March presidential nominating contest over one in May,” Moon said in a written statement.
In an interview with the Sun, Crane said the bill died because there was no motion to send it to the House floor.
“When Senate Bill 1186 came to House State Affairs and we got done with hearing and called for the vote … it died for a lack of motion,” Crane said.
After the meeting adjourned, Crane said he immediately suggested McGrane request that Little veto House Bill 138, the initial bill that eliminated the March presidential primary election because the trailer bill died.
Instead, Little signed House Bill 138 into law.
In April, after the legislative session adjourned, Moon also published a column where she continued to push for the earlier primary in March and opposed the Idaho Legislature’s bill that moved the primary back to May.
“Make no mistake: a primary held in May means Idaho’s voice is drowned out by the decisions made in earlier primary states, leaving Idaho — and Idaho’s Republican voters — largely irrelevant in a national nominating process,” Moon wrote at the time.
Two things happened after that.
The Idaho Republican Party’s State Central Committee passed a resolution calling on the Idaho Legislature to reconvene and restore the March presidential primary election (as opposed to redrafting and passing Senate Bill 1186, the “trailer bill” that would move the March primary election to May.)
The Idaho Republican Party State Central Committee also voted June 24 during the Idaho GOP summer meeting to pass a rule to hold a presidential caucus in early March if the Idaho Legislature does not take action to restore the March primary election before the Republican National Committee’s Oct. 1 deadline.
“The state central committee would like the Legislature to restore the March presidential primary,” Moon wrote in a written statement to the Sun last week. “If they do not, we continue by proceeding with the caucus.”
Moon’s statement means that with seven months to go until the potential caucus, voters and Republican Party officials do not now know with certainty when or how Idaho Republicans will pick their party’s presidential nominee.
There are financial considerations too. If the Idaho GOP presses forward with the caucus, the Idaho Republican Party and its county GOP chapters will be responsible for organizing, paying for and running a caucus. On the other hand, if the Idaho Legislature restores the March primary or moves the presidential primary to May, the state would pay for and run the primary election.
The Democrats don’t appear to have certainty either. On June 30, the Idaho Democratic State Central Committee voted to pass a resolution calling on the Idaho Legislature to reinstate the primary election.
“The elimination of the presidential primary brings an unwelcome outcome for voters: we must now revert to an outdated caucus system,” Rep. Lauren Necochea, the chairwoman of the Idaho Democratic Party said in a written statement June 30.
“While the original legislation was meant to increase participation, the opposite will now occur,” Necochea added. “Rather than heading to their normal polling location to cast a ballot, Idahoans will have to travel much further, arrive at a set time, and potentially sit through hours of deliberation. For many voters — especially working people, the elderly, and families with young kids — these barriers will prevent them from having a say in the presidential nomination process.”
What happens next with Idaho’s primary vs caucus debate?
Thanks to the passage of Senate Joint Resolution 102 during the 2022 general election, the Idaho Legislature now has the power to call itself back into session upon a written request from 60% of members of the Idaho House and Idaho Senate.
But in an interview Monday afternoon, Crane, the chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, said Little should be the one to call the special session.
“There are conversations taking place with lawmakers right now,” Crane said. “This is a situation where I believe the governor needs to call a special session. He was made well aware of the fact that we had a problem with House Bill 138. If he’d like to rectify that situation, I am sure there are legislators who are ready to go in and talk about potential solutions.”
Little’s office did not immediately respond to questions from the Sun on Monday afternoon about whether Little is considering calling a special legislative session to address the issue.
However, during a press conference in April, Little said he did not anticipate calling a special session to address the presidential primary, the Sun previously reported.
“It’s not up to me anymore,” Little said in April. “If you’re going to do a special session, I would urge my legislative branch leadership to do the same thing that I and my predecessors have done. You’ve got one bill, there’s a general agreement on it prior to people arriving here and get it done.”
On July 19, House Speaker Mike Moyle, R-Star, told the Sun that there are discussions going on among legislators about addressing the primary versus caucus situation. But, as of that time at least, he said there was no agreement over how to proceed and not enough votes to pass a bill.
“I don’t know how that is going to wash out,” Moyle said. “There’s been some that would like to see us have a special session and that takes 60% and the support is not there yet. … There is no consensus on what to do to address the issue.”
Still Moyle said there are concerns with moving to a caucus.
“It’s harder to do,” Moyle said. “You know, the Democrats did it for years and years, but it’s easier to do when you have smaller numbers. And there is no absentee voting or anything else – it limits who gets to go vote. So there’s some concerns with the caucus, in my opinion, but we will see how it plays out. There’s options, but I wish we would just put it all together and be done with it.”
FEATURED IMAGE: Voters cast their ballots at Boise’s Fairmont Junior High during the Idaho primary election on May 17, 2022. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
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