Idaho’s open primary initiative has been approved for the November ballot, which could lead to conflict
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Idaho’s open primary initiative has been approved for the November ballot, which could lead to conflict

Idaho voters will have an important decision to make when they vote in November: Should Idaho’s closed party primary system be abolished and standard general election voting replaced with ranked-choice voting?

The Idaho Secretary of State’s office announced Wednesday that a major referendum initiative has met signature requirements to be presented to voters in November. Organized by a coalition called Idahoans for Open Primaries, the initiative has collected nearly 75,000 verified signatures in recent months, surpassing the state’s requirement for organizers to obtain nearly 63,000 signatures.

The announcement foreshadows a potential conflict with Republican Attorney General Raúl Labrador, who has said he will try to block the decision in a vote, according to previous reporting by the Statesman. Labrador spokesman Dan Estes told the Idaho Statesman in an email Wednesday that Labrador does not comment on “potentially pending or ongoing litigation.”

“We believe a challenge by the Labrador attorney general is likely and we are confident that the challenge will fail,” Luke Mayville, the lead organizer of the initiative, told the Statesman in a text message. “There is nothing unconstitutional about giving all voters the right to participate in a pre-selection election.”

County officials initially reviewed tens of thousands of signatures earlier this summer, discarding those that could not be verified by the petition drive. The final count of signatures was sent to the secretary of state earlier this month for the final step in the process: final approval from the state.

The Secretary of State’s office is asking for arguments for and against this initiative, some of which will be included in a brochure that voters will receive before Election Day.

The controversial initiative has pitted reform-minded Idahoans against right-wing conservatives who have shifted the Republican Party to the right in recent years, largely through the party’s closed primary process that determines the outcome of many statewide elections before the general election.

State Republican Party leaders have strongly opposed the initiative, with party chair Dorothy Moon calling it a “malicious conspiracy” to weaken power in the legislature.

But other prominent Republicans and former state leaders have supported the initiative, arguing it would give more Idahoans a chance to vote for their leaders and allow for more candidates with popular appeal.

Former Gov. Butch Otter, former House Speaker Bruce Newcomb and former Idaho Attorney General and Chief Justice Jim Jones have all spoken out in support of the initiative. The coalition includes about 120 Republicans — some former lawmakers, sheriffs or state officials — who have endorsed the ballot initiative on their website.

Elected Republicans have been quieter. Gov. Brad Little has not taken a public position on the initiative, and a spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Secretary of State Phil McGrane also did not provide a position and did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

McGrane’s office said in a press release that organizers “met the required threshold of 62,895 valid petition signatures” and met requirements “to distribute in at least 18 precincts, with each precinct required to receive at least 6 percent of registered voters.”

Mayville said more than 2,000 volunteers participated in collecting signatures.

“Their motivation was the belief that all voters, regardless of party affiliation, have the right to participate in every election in Idaho,” he said.

Mayville previously told the Statesman that “powerful party insiders and special interests” oppose the measure “because they know it will give ordinary voters the power to choose their own leaders.”

“These special interests want to hand-elect our leaders and they understand that a closed primary system allows them to do that,” he said.