Seven years ago when Idaho’s Republican Party sued to close its primaries to non-Republican voters, the party argued that “crossover voters” were violating the party’s constitutional rights.
At the time, the Idaho GOP cited a study that claimed as many as 40 percent of Democrats admitted to crossover voting, or casting ballots in the other party’s primary. The federal judge overseeing the case discussed estimates of 10 percent — but even that violated the party’s right to freedom of association, he ruled.
Since 2011, the only voters who’ve been able to cast a Republican ballot in Idaho primaries must register with the party.
Has it worked?
One method of comparing voter registration data suggests that whether crossover voting was much of an issue before, it certainly isn’t now. (That’s assuming some Idaho Democrats haven’t permanently registered as Republicans... more on that later.)
We looked at Idaho voters’ party registrations as of mid-July compared to the party ballots they cast in the 2018, 2016, 2014 and 2012 primary elections. Specifically, we measured Democrats who at an earlier date voted as registered Republicans. For comparison, we also examined the same behavior by unaffiliated voters. The numbers show that few such Idahoans have cast GOP ballots in the recent past.
In the May 2018 primary, 329 voters currently registered as Democrats cast Republican ballots, data shows. Nearly 3,850 now-unaffiliated voters also cast Republican ballots in May.
May’s ballots featured high-interest races for both major parties, particularly for the nomination for governor. A full 194,536 votes were cast in the Republican primary for governor; Brad Little won with 9,070 votes separating him from his closest competitor, Raul Labrador. The closest margin in a statewide GOP primary was the race for lieutenant governor, which Janice McGeachin — a heavily conservative former state lawmaker — won with 2,829 more votes than former state GOP chairman Steve Yates.
Two patterns emerge when looking at previous years. The number of Democrats voting Republican has gradually shrunk over time. But unaffiliated voters are still attracted in roughly consistent numbers to primaries involving races for governor or president.
In the 2016 primary, 676 current Democrats and 1,833 currently unaffiliated voters cast Republican ballots. Earlier that year, during the Republican-only presidential primary, 703 of those Democrats and 4,613 of the unaffiliated voters cast Republican ballots.
Four years ago, when Idaho last elected a governor, 1,126 current Democrats joined 3,558 now-unaffiliated voters to cast Republican ballots. (Gov. Butch Otter won that year with 12,085 more votes than Russ Fulcher.) And in 2012, 1,455 of those Democrats and 3,721 unaffiliated voters participated in the regular Republican primary, which that year also included the presidential race.
Overall, crossover voting does not appear widespread, particularly by Democrats.
“I would guess it’s only a small handful (of the electorate),” said Matt Miles, a professor of history, geography and political science at Brigham Young University-Idaho.
Miles said he doesn’t expect crossover voters have enough sway, even precinct-by-precinct, to alter the outcome of most elections, he said.
He said he suspects many crossover voters seek to bolster more moderate candidates. One example: He said his own neighbors in Madison County switched party affiliation earlier this year to help vote out Republican state Rep. Ron Nate.
“It’s situations like that where (Democrats) said, ‘We have to get rid of (politicians like) Ron Nate,’” Miles said. “I think you’ll see it in counties where there’s a competitive Republican primary going on.”
There are caveats to this method of examining the data. One advantage is that it measures actual votes cast rather than people who simply changed their affiliation. But there’s no absolute way to know why someone switched parties without asking them.
And an unknown number of voters may stay registered as Republicans year-round and only endorse Democratic candidates in general elections. “I’m registered R but vote D nearly always. Many of my friends are as well. Flip it baby. Flip it,” wrote one commenter on an Idaho Statesman story about the most liberal places in the state.
Phil McGrane, Ada County’s chief deputy clerk, said part of the 2018 decline may have come from voters who switched their party affiliation prior to voting and have yet to switch back.
“After the fact, it takes way more (effort) to switch back than to make that initial change,” McGrane said.