Effort to open Idaho primaries to more voters gains momentum

Teton Valley residents are working to get a measure on the 2024 ballot to change leadership in the red state.
Larry Veit, a Victor resident, collects signatures at the farmers market in Driggs on Sept 15. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

This article is part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, in which news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces. To learn more, visit usdemocracyday.org.

Right now, only registered Republicans can vote in GOP primary elections in Idaho. 

But activists across the red state aim to change that. The Idahoans for Open Primaries coalition aims to create a non-partisan primary system open to all voters.

And the movement recently expanded to Teton Valley. 

Larry Veit, who’s an independent, canvassed for signatures at a farmers market in Driggs Friday. He said the initiative is a way to counter extremism in the Republican party by electing politicians who are “more responsive” to the needs of voters.

“Party leaders pick who runs in the primary,” he explained. “This way, the people will pick who’s running.”

Veit said he typically registers as Republican during the primary season to make his vote have an impact in the conservative state. 

If the ballot measure goes through, he said that he and a quarter million independents could have their voices heard without having to switch their party affiliation.

‘Represent a vast majority’

Many residents eagerly signed Larry Viet’s petition at the Driggs farmers market, though many attendees didn’t live in the county and were unable to sign. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

Veit said he’s one of about 20 volunteers in the relatively progressive region, where he said the initiative has been well-received. 

Another volunteer, Peter Carman, was collecting signatures outside Broulim’s, the grocery store in Driggs.

He explained to interested shoppers that the initiative would also change the state’s general elections by creating instant runoffs — also known as ranked-choice voting. 

“It’s an attempt to make the people who get elected represent a vast majority of people in our state, rather than just a small section,” he explained.

With the new voting system, voters would be able to rank candidates by preference — so choose their top pick, but also their second and third. 

If no candidate receives a majority, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated. Then, the second choice votes for that candidate are redistributed until someone has over half the vote.

Alaska and Maine have already implemented the system.

Rift in Idaho GOP

On Sept. 13, the state’s former governor, Butch Otter, endorsed the ballot initiative. He aligns as a traditional Republican. 

“It’s time to bring some civility back into the political discourse of Idaho,” Otter said in a press conference.

He joined more than 100 GOP members across the state in giving their support.

But, the Republican Party of Idaho swiftly condemned the movement, calling it a “radical leftist push” and saying it “compromises the integrity” of state elections.

Idaho lawmakers have already passed a law banning ranked-choice voting. If passed, the ballot initiative could override that.

Supporters have until next spring to collect signatures from about 60 thousand voters, or 6% of Idaho residents. According to Veit, from the farmer’s market, the group has already gathered 15,000 signatures.

The measure could come before voters on the November 2024 ballot.

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About Hanna Merzbach

Hanna is KHOL's senior reporter and managing editor. A lot of her work focuses on housing and local politics, but also women's health — and whatever else she finds interesting. You can hear her reporting around the country and region on NPR, Wyoming Public Radio and community radio stations around the west. She hails from Bend, Oregon, where she reported for outlets such as the Atlantic, High Country News and Oregon Public Broadcasting. In her free time, you can find Hanna scaling rock walls or adventuring in the mountains.

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