Proponents — including the former Idaho governor — argue that it would make politics nice again
By Daniel Walters / InvestigateWest
Idaho is a deep red state, one that hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president in nearly 60 years, and it keeps getting redder.
But at an Aug. 19 event in Idaho Falls, a slew of powerful Republican voices warned that a single voter initiative could cause their whole conservative kingdom to come tumbling down.
“Idaho is under attack,” proclaimed Idaho GOP Chair Dorothy Moon.
“All you have to look at is the end result,” said influential Idaho Republican donor Frank VanderSloot. “The liberals win. If you want to keep Idaho red, and not turn it pink and then purple and then blue, we need to stop this.”
Then came the headliner: former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who claimed liberals would destroy the mining and timber industry in Idaho and “decimate the middle class.”
“That’s what they’ll be able to do if this voting system is adopted,” Palin said.
If it garners enough signatures to get on the ballot next year, the “Open Primary Initiative” these Republicans fear so much would change a fundamental piece of Idaho’s democracy, altering who gets to vote and how their votes get counted. In the primary, voters would be able to vote for any candidate, no matter their party. And the general election would be conducted through “ranked-choice voting,” letting voters rate four finalists from who most and least.
Versions of this reform have been adopted in liberal San Francisco, independent Maine, and some cities in conservative Utah. There’s little evidence that the system is inherently biased against Republicans.
But today, the Idaho GOP talks about this proposal in downright apocalyptic terms. Their legislators have voted to ban the practice — so have legislatures in Tennessee, Florida and Montana. The Republican National Committee unanimously voted to oppose it nationwide.
And yet, some moderate Republicans — including a long list of former Idaho state legislators and a former Idaho governor — have joined forces with progressives like Reclaim Idaho’s initiative maven Luke Mayville to get it passed. They believe the new system would return Idaho to the days when politics wasn’t so nasty.
It’s the set-up for a showdown in 2024: Idaho’s Republican past versus its Republican present.
“They’re already getting signatures on petitions,” Idaho GOP Chair Moon said at the Idaho Falls event. “And we’re starting the war.”
Making The Primary Secondary
First things first: Mayville argued the initiative wouldn’t change the partisan makeup.
“Just as many Republicans would get elected, just as many Democrats will get elected,” Mayville said.
But, he adds, “it will make it a lot harder for politicians who don’t represent the population to get elected.”
There’s the catch: It really is about changing the type of Republican who gets elected. Back in 2018, Mayville managed to convince 60 percent of Idaho voters to vote for an initiative to expand Medicaid, something the Republican-dominated Legislature had repeatedly refused to support. It was evidence, even then, of a disconnect between politicians and the public.
On social media, the Idaho GOP shared a clip of former congressional candidate Bryan Smith saying, “If Idaho gets ranked choice voting, we’re finished. It’s that simple.”
But former Idaho Speaker of the House Bruce Newcomb, one of the initiative’s supporters, pointed to that same clip to say exactly.
“He’s speaking on behalf of the far, far right extreme,” Newcomb said.
Newcomb is one of those old-school Republicans who laments the party’s slide toward extremism, particularly since 2011, when a state law shuttered the Republican primary to anybody but registered Republicans. Since most races in Idaho are effectively decided in the Republican primary, that means a huge swath of Idaho voters have been cut out of the state’s most important elections.
“There’s a huge groundswell of people who are saying enough already,” Newcomb said.
And as the hard right took control of the state GOP, they’ve moved to cut out even more voters: This summer, the party changed rules to require anyone currently affiliated with a different party — like Democrats or Libertarians — to wait over a year before they can join the Republicans, where the real decisions get made.
Greg Pruett, a longtime conservative activist who used to run the right-wing Idaho Dispatch website, expected that Reclaim Idaho would try to use a voter initiative to crowbar the primary back open. He just didn’t think they would also try to stuff ranked-choice voting — a much more radical change — into the same initiative.
“I am shocked they went for both,” Pruett said. “This just seems like a terrible strategic move.”
It’s tough enough for voters to research one candidate they want to vote for, he says. This initiative asks them to research the nuances of four to send them through a complicated instant runoff process.
As votes are being tabulated, the candidate with the fewest number of first-ranked votes would get knocked out. If you voted for them, it doesn’t mean you wasted your ballot — it just means that your vote would get redirected to the candidate you ranked second. Repeat until there’s only two candidates left, and crown the one with the most votes the winner.
Mayville’s coalition, however, branded it the “Open Primary Initiative,” claiming the whole ranked-choice thing is merely a “secondary feature” of the reform. But when pressed, Mayville argued that the ranked-choice portion is fundamental to the reform.
His coalition wants to weaken the importance of the primary itself, taking power away from the smaller group of the most politically engaged Republicans and handing a broader choice of candidates to the general electorate when a lot more people are engaged.
VanderSloot, the GOP donor, describes a ranked-choice voting scenario where Republican and Democratic voters both ranked the opposite party’s pick last, allowing a squishy “nothing burger” of a candidate to slip by to victory. For those like Newcomb, yearning for a kinder, gentler politics of yore, a consensus choice doesn’t sound so bad.
The Palin Comparison
But for those who relish bare-knuckled political scrapes, it’s a nightmare.
“You have to be nice to your opponent!” Palin lamented to her Idaho audience. “If you’re calling out your opponent … then their supporters get mad at you and rank you at the very bottom.”
Palin, more than any other political figure, may be responsible for the recent turn from Republicans against ranked-choice voting.
Once upon a time, some Alaska Republicans had actually championedranked-choice voting, hoping to counteract a trend of multiple Republican candidates splitting each others’ support, allowing left-wing candidates to win seats in conservative districts.
But in 2022, Palin ran in a three-way race for a U.S. House seat under Alaska’s voter-approved ranked-choice voting system and got beat by a Democrat. Twice.
From a distance, that could seem shocking: Trump had won the state by 10 points, and a Democrat hadn’t been elected to that House seat since Richard Nixon was president.
But plenty of those inside the state saw it coming: Alaska had voted for a Democrat for Senate a decade earlier. Alaska’s U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is considered one of the most moderate Republican members of Congress. And Palin, who resigned as Alaska governor in 2009 amid a thicket of ethics allegations in the middle of her first term, was extremely unpopular, facing a 60 percent disapproval rating.
“She lost because she was not the most popular candidate in the race,” Mayville said.
But vote totals showed that most Alaskans actually preferred the other Republican, moderate Nick Begich, in the August 2022 special election to either Palin or the Democrat, but because of the funkiness of the ranked-choice system, he was eliminated in the first round.
Even though other Republican candidates had done even better under the new system than the old one, a nationwide Republican backlash followed.
While initial 2022 polling found the vast majority of Alaskan voters believed the new voting system “simple,” this year Alaska Survey Research polls have consistently showed that most Alaskans support ditching it. And it’s become sharply divided by ideology: 89 percent of conservatives want to dump it, while 86 percent of progressives want to keep it.
“We’re gathering signatures to put it back on the ballot so that we can get rid of ranked-choice voting,” Palin said to applause from the Idaho audience, arguing that if Alaska ditched their experiment with the new system “it was worth it to run and lose. Again.”
Gubernatorial Seal Of Approval
Earlier this week, however, ranked-choice voting supporters like Newcomb played one of the few cards that could beat the testimony of a former Alaska governor: a former Idaho governor.
At a Sept. 13 press conference outside the state Capitol in Boise, former Gov. Butch Otter formally endorsed the ranked-choice voting initiative, along with a list of more than 100 other Republicans.
He argued that Alaska debunked the idea that Republicans couldn’t succeed under ranked-choice voting, and that Idaho’s current system effectively denied independents a meaningful vote.
“Every registered voter should have the right to weigh in on choosing our leaders,” he said in a press release.
Pruett, the Republican activist, tells InvestigateWest he’s preparing to launch a new organization to fight tooth and nail against the ranked-choice voting efforts.
“I’m going to hit hard,” Pruett said. “A lot of people on the conservative side don’t have the stomach for the more hard-hitting political strategy.”
The Idaho GOP aren’t the only ones opposed to the change, of course. Washington, D.C.’s local Democratic Party has come out against ranked-choice voting, too — which supporters see as more evidence of those in power protecting their own. Yet Republican legislators stuck in the minority in Oregon remained opposed to the reform, despite the possibility it may help them gain seats.
It may come down to disposition: Progressives have touted evidence that female and minority candidates do better under a ranked-choice system, while conservatives tend to be conservative — wary of claims that newfangled innovations dramatically improve things.
“The grassroots activists of the Republican Party have made it abundantly clear that they do not trust new election procedures, outcomes, and further complications of modern systems,” the Republican National Committee said in their statement.
“The trust in elections right now is at an all-time low,” Pruett said. “Which is, by the way, a very dangerous place for a country to be.”
But part of the reason why trust is so low is that conservative pundits and politicians have been inflaming the public’s distrust with false claims of voter fraud. Twice during her Idaho speech opposing ranked-choice voting, Palin name-dropped Dominion, the voting machine company that has been the subject of countless debunked right-wing conspiracy theories.
It’s a marked contrast from the kind of Republican Party that Otter says he wants to return to.
The Idaho GOP, however, accused Otter of supporting a “radical leftist push.” Otter served as a Republican congressman for six years and a Republican governor for 12, but suddenly, in the eyes of his state party, his position on ranked-choice voting has superseded all of that.
“There’s a name for these imposters,” the Idaho GOP wrote on social media, “and it is NOT Republican.”
But Mayville argued that the reason a lot of Republican operatives oppose ranked-choice voting is a lot more simple — and cynical.
“They benefit from a broken system,” he said. “If the playing field were level and independent voters had a choice in their election, they wouldn’t succeed.”
FEATURED IMAGE: Former Governor Sarah Palin speaking with attendees at the 2021 Young Women’s Leadership Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center in Grapevine, Texas. (Gage Skidmore photo)
InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. A Report for America corps member, Daniel Walters covers democracy and extremism across the region. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.