State Politics

U.S. District Court Judge: Independents' lawyers may intervene in Idaho primary lawsuit

A group of independent voters won a federal judge’s permission Wednesday to join a court fight over Idaho’s open primary elections.

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled that lawyers for the American Independent Movement of Idaho and the New York-based Committee for a Unified Independent Party could intervene on behalf of Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who is defending Idaho’s 36-year-old system.

Currently, a voter may choose any party’s primary ballot. The state Republican Party has sued Ysursa to limit voting on GOP candidates to registered Republicans, claiming that Democrats and members of other parties who cross party lines skew election results.

Harry Kresky, a lawyer for the independent groups, says voters affiliated with neither the Republican nor Democratic parties will be most negatively affected if the GOP succeeds. Kresky said the case may be the first in which independents have been allowed to join a court fight over primary elections.

He said the Republican plan would shut out independent voters who represent nearly a third of the electorate.

“We need to be at the table,” Kresky said. “Given what’s being sought, the voting bloc that’s going to most impacted by that restructuring should be heard.”

Winmill agreed to let the independents intervene after hearing less than an hour of arguments.

He wants to keep the case moving fast enough to be resolved before the Legislature convenes in January, partly so lawmakers can act on measures that might be affected by the outcome of the case.

The issue has divided the state GOP and was a key factor in June when delegates to the state Republican convention in Sandpoint ousted Chairman Kirk Sullivan, a closed primary opponent foe whom some accused of not doing enough to resolve the issue.

Delegates voted 199-192 to recommend preserving the primary open, but the vote was only advisory and the state GOP Central Committee has maintained its preference for a closed primary. Norm Semanko, who replaced Sullivan as chairman, has said he aims to convene talks to seek a compromise.

Semanko couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on the ruling — or on progress toward reaching a compromise.

John Eric Sutton, a party lawyer, argued unsuccessfully Wednesday that independents’ interests in the case would be adequately represented by Ysursa because the secretary of state is legally obligated to look out for all Idaho voters.

Sutton also said independents should be denied standing in a federal case over the kind of election a private group such as the Idaho Republican Party can hold. The Supreme Court has ruled states can’t force political parties to associate “with those who don’t share their political beliefs.” More than two dozen states have closed primary elections.

Winmill, however, ruled that it would be “putting the cart before the horse to prejudge the interveners’ right” when voting rights are at stake.

Ysursa’s aides would not say whether he supported granting the independents intervener status.“’Silence is golden’ is what Secretary Ysursa instructed me to say,” Deputy Attorney General Michael Gilmore told the judge.

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