Letters from the West

Top-two primary empowers all voters, and Idaho should consider it

Sean Coletti believes the Republicans’ drive to close their primary election has failed to keep Democrats and independents from voting for the GOP’s candidates.

But it has allowed a small portion of the electorate that does vote in the Republican Primary to pick the eventual winner in statewide races. That’s because Democrats have not been able to compete in what is, arguably, the most Republican state in the nation.

That’s why the Ammon attorney and Republican precinct committeeman is pushing to change Idaho’s primary elections to a “top-two primary,” like California and Washington have. In those primaries, the top two vote-getters go on to compete in the general election, no matter what their party affiliation is.

The U.S. Supreme Court chose not to hear a challenge from minor political parties in California last month, which means if crafted correctly the top-two primary can pass constitutional muster. The Green and Libertarian parties, and others, argued unsuccessfully that the system was unfair because it left them off the November ballot.

But Coletti says the top-two process allows all the people — not the parties — to decide who leads our governments.

“It requires candidates to appeal to the wider audiences,” Coletti said. “The most important part of this is it makes everyone important.”

California voters approved the top-two primary in 2010. Washington first used the system in the 2008 election. It’s still early to say how it will change voter turnout, behavior or interest.

But the race that might shine the most light on what we could expect in Idaho was the 4th District U.S. House race in east and central Washington in 2014 to replace longtime Republican Rep. Doc Hastings.

Republicans Clint Didier and Dan Newhouse were the top two vote-getters in the primary, the first time in state history two candidates from the same political party made the November ballot.

Didier, a former NFL player who was endorsed by the Tea Party Express, was the top primary winner at 30 percent. Newhouse, more moderate but still conservative, got 26 percent.

Newhouse, a farmer, won the general election. The 4th District is like most of Idaho, outside of Ada County and perhaps Pocatello, Ketchum and Moscow.

Coletti, 38 and a father of two boys, is a centrist himself who thinks the process should empower candidates who would otherwise be tossed aside when a one-issue or strongly ideological candidate from either party wins their primary.

“How refreshing it would be to have candidates who have to balance ideas from all sides,” he said.

The big losers in such a system would appear to be Idaho Democrats. But they can’t do any worse than they did in the last election, when they couldn’t get a single statewide candidate elected despite scandal and incompetent campaigning by several Republicans.

You can guess how the outcomes might be different if we had a top-two primary.

Despite the obvious disadvantage to the Democrats in statewide races, Executive Director Sally Boynton Brown can’t say how the party would react to such a proposal. “That’s something we haven’t talked about as an organization yet,” Brown said.

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, says he doesn’t speak for the party, but he favors the idea as the one option available to respond to the closed primary.

“My opinion is the Republican Party has been taken over by the right,” Rusche said. “They’ve used the primary to throttle the process.”

The reason Idaho doesn’t have a more balanced electoral process is not the fault of the Republican primary or Republicans in general, said Rod Beck, one of the GOP activists behind the closed primary.

“There used to be two sides to the Democratic Party, the wine-and-cheese crowd and the lunch-bucket crowd,” he said. “Now they’re all socialists.”

Boise businessman A.J. Balukoff and many other Idaho Democrats would take issue with Beck’s characterization, just as Beck and others don’t like being called extremists. But Beck’s point is that in districts where one party has a supermajority — as the Republicans do in most districts statewide, and as Democrats do in parts of Boise — voters might not get a diversity of views.

Coletti said the diversity still would be present in the top-two primary, but the winners would be chosen by all Idahoans.

He plans to take the issue to the GOP convention first in January. He might even bring the idea to the Idaho Legislature. If not, he doesn’t rule out taking it to voters with an initiative petition campaign. He believes the idea will garner strong support.

Beck doubts that.

“I suspect he won’t get the funding to promote that idea, and he won’t get the grass-roots support to do it himself,” the Boise Republican said.

The current closed primary system leaves me and most independents out. And as a journalist, I don’t want to declare myself aligned with either party.

That’s my personal interest in the top-two system. But at a time when politics has become so polarized, I think it is in the public interest as well.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker