AP NewsBreak: Idaho Republicans sue state to close primaries

Rebecca Boone // Published April 12, 2008 in Fort Mills Times/AP
The Idaho Republican Party is suing the state in federal court, hoping to force the closure of Republican primary elections to anyone who is not a registered Republican.

The party's executive director, Sidney Smith, said Saturday the lawsuit against Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa is a way of taking concrete action to carry out the wishes of party members.

"We hope this suit will move quickly through the process and lead to an effective structure that respects the rights of our party members," Smith said in a prepared statement.

In the lawsuit, party officials contend that the party has a right under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution to limit participation in the primaries to "those voters who identify themselves as sharing the interests of the party."

The effort to close the party's primary election lacks the support of Idaho's chief executive.

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter said the lawsuit forces the party to spend money on legal bills instead of on winning elections, and he called it a purification tool that could one day damage the party.

"I'm not any kind of fan of changing our primary system," Otter told reporters at a press conference last week. "I think it's a big mistake for us to make that kind of change that is being requested."

His opposition also stems from concern that closing the primary may turn away important GOP voters.

"I also think it's going to disenfranchise a lot of folks that would normally and have in the past supported Republicans," Otter said. "We haven't been that unsuccessful at the polls. And why we would ... destroy that success, or why we would imperil that success is a mystery to me."

Ysursa said he was expecting the lawsuit. The Idaho attorney general's office will fight the matter in court. The state has a right to set policy for a publicly funded election, he said.

"My main concern has always been the election process and the voter," said Ysursa in a phone call with The Associated Press on Saturday. "It will be a continued battle over party rule versus state law. We will defend it to the best of our ability."

The 2008 primary is scheduled for May 27, roughly six weeks away. Party leaders conceded that they did not expect a federal judge to rule on the matter before then. Instead, the lawsuit asks the court to order the Idaho Legislature to pass a bill in 2009 closing the primaries, effective in 2010.

At issue is a fear by some conservative Republicans that Democrats, Independents or other voters could infiltrate the Republican primaries and skew the result by voting for more moderate candidates.

Ysursa was named in the lawsuit because as the Idaho Secretary of State, he is responsible for administrating Idaho's election process.

Idaho has had open primaries for the past 36 years.

It's not the first time in recent history that Republican leaders have tried to close the primaries, however. In 2007 a federal judge rejected a lawsuit brought by former Republican State Sen. Rod Beck that sought to close the primaries. In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Mikel Williams wrote that Beck and 71 other GOP members who brought the case didn't represent the party and therefore didn't have any right to sue.

This time around the lawsuit comes from the entire Idaho Republican Party, its executive committee, state central committee, chairman and executive director. The change was possible because in 2006 closed-primary rules were passed by the attendees at the party's state convention, and the following year the rules were officially adopted by the party's Central Committee.

Despite the official endorsement of the party, not all state Republican leaders are supportive of the plan. The debate has caused a rift between the conservative wing of the Republican party and moderate Republicans in one of the nation's reddest states.

GOP chairman Kirk Sullivan has opposed efforts by Beck and other party leaders to close the primary, and Beck has said he would consider challenging Sullivan for the leadership post.

Earlier this year, the Idaho Senate voted 20-15 to make public which ballot - Republican or Democrat - voters choose in primary elections. The bill never made it to Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's desk, however - the House declined to take it up before the Legislature adjourned for the year.

Many of the Republicans who voted for the bill said they did so to help Sullivan survive any challenge from conservatives at the party's state convention in Sandpoint in June.

Some of the state's more conservative Republican activists contend Sullivan and others haven't been aggressive enough on issues including family issues and school choice. Some local GOP officials have even suggested that if Beck wins in June, more-moderate Republicans could form a new Idaho party.