Idaho politics has only two modes. Usually, it’s a farce — proposals to ban vaccines in lettuce or to ban vaccines for humans but not cows, for example. The rest of the time, Idaho politics is a tragedy — turning the health care many Idahoans rely on into a felony or using the government to execute a campaign of persecution against gay and transgender people.
It would be nice if Idaho’s politics focused on the issues that Idahoans say are their highest priorities: jobs, housing, education, health care and property taxes. Certainly, many in the Legislature are working on these issues — and Gov. Brad Little has been able to spur major progress on the education front — but the last few sessions have been stuck on the culture war: banning books, jailing librarians and pushing transgender people out of public life, to name a few.
There’s a reason that the main focus of many lawmakers is often so incredibly different than that of the voters they represent. It’s Idaho’s election system.
The system has been broken since the advent of the closed Republican primary, which has increasingly meant that Idaho is represented by people hand-selected by a tiny portion of the population. As Matt Germer of the R Street Institute recently pointed out, less than 10 percent of voters in a district sometimes decide who will represent the whole. Why in the world would that be a good idea?
There’s a serious solution on the horizon. A coalition of public interest groups began the process of launching an initiative to change the way Idaho elects candidates so that they are more representative of Idaho voters.
The election would start with a so-called jungle primary, in which all voters could vote for any candidate of any party. Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Constitution Partiers, Green Partiers, independents and any others could vote for whatever candidate they want, regardless of party.
The top-four vote-getters would then face off in a ranked-choice general election, whereby voters select their top candidate, and then rank the other three in order of preference. If no candidate has most of the votes in the first tally, the candidate with the fewest first-place rankings would be eliminated, and the ballots in their pile would be split according to each voter’s second-place ranking. The process would repeat until a candidate had a majority.
Each step outlined in this initiative would be an improvement because it would make Idaho government more reflective of the will of the people — the mark of a functioning representative democracy. The most important election would no longer be the primary, when very few people vote, but the general election, when lots of people vote.
Since 1980, turnout in the primary election has varied between about one-sixth and one-third of the voting-age population, according to data from the secretary of state’s office. But in the general election, turnout has varied from two-fifths to over two-thirds — consistently more than twice as high.
The ranked-choice structure of the general election would also give third-party candidates a much more realistic chance, which would be excellent for the health of Idaho government. A voter who leans Libertarian but doesn’t want to throw their vote away on a candidate who’s sure to lose could make the Libertarian their first choice, and then a Republican or Democrat their second, depending on their preferences.
Most of those elected would still be Republicans — Idaho has been an overwhelmingly Republican state since its founding — but you would tend to see a different kind of Republican than has become increasingly predominant since the closed primary. Instead of winning with no challenger, or winning against a Democrat in an overwhelmingly red district, the victor in a ranked-choice general election might need to face off against a Democrat and two other Republicans.
It would hardly be revolutionary. It would just take Idaho politics back to something like 2010.
Instead of having to make their case to a handful of hyperpartisans, candidates would have to make their case to the electorate as a whole — which is why the far-right Idaho Freedom Caucus, whose candidates would win very few elections without the closed primary, is currently shaking in its boots.
Bryan Clark is an opinion writer with the Idaho Statesman based in eastern Idaho.