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Idaho Senate reaches support for special session on presidential primary

Idaho State Capitol building on March 23, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
Otto Kitsinger
Idaho State Capitol building on March 23, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Special session supporters must now win support in Idaho House of Representatives

Republican leaders of the Idaho Senate announced Wednesday they have reached 60% support for a petition to call a special session of the Idaho Legislature to address the state’s eliminated presidential primary election issue.

Now, the petition’s supporters must also achieve the support of 60% of the members of the Idaho House of Representatives in order for a special session to take place.

As of noon Wednesday, Speaker of the House Mike Moyle, R-Star, said members of the House are divided into factions over the issue. Some members of the House prefer a March primary, some prefer a May primary date and some prefer taking no action because the Idaho Republican Party already voted to hold a caucus if the Idaho Legislature does not reinstate the March presidential primary election, Moyle said.

“So far we haven’t been able to hit the sweet spot where we get 42 signatures necessary to go back into session,” Moyle said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

If 60% of the members of the House do sign the petition, that would trigger a special session no later than 15 days after Moyle and Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, receive the signed petition.

If the House cannot get 60% support for the petition, there would be no special session.

The Idaho Legislature has the power to call itself back into session for the first time because Idaho voters approved a constitutional amendment in November called Senate Joint Resolution 102. SJR 102 gives the Idaho Legislature the ability to call itself back into session upon a written petition signed by 60% of the members of both the Idaho House and Idaho Senate.

Previously, only the governor had the authority to call a special session.

The presidential primary issue has been discussed throughout the summer, but calls for a special session have picked up in recent days as the state draws closer to an Oct. 1 Republican Party deadline.

What happened to Idaho’s presidential primary election?

The calls for a special session relate to the presidential primary election, which the Idaho Legislature seemingly unintentionally eliminated earlier this year through House Bill 138. The bill’s supporters said House Bill 138 was designed to save the state $2.7 million every four years by moving the presidential primary election back from March and holding it during the May election when the rest of the state’s primary elections take place. But instead, the bill eliminated the March presidential election and did not move it to May. Some legislators realized there was a problem after the House passed House Bill 138 and introduced Senate Bill 1186 as a correction to move the presidential primary election to May. But Senate Bill 1186 failed to advance out of the House State Affairs Committee after Idaho Republican Party Chairwoman Dorothy Moon spoke out in opposition to the bill March 30.

The Idaho Legislature then adjourned for the year a week later, on April 6, without resolving the presidential primary issue.

In response, the Idaho Republican Party’s state central committee voted during its summer meeting to instead hold a presidential nominating caucus in early March if the Idaho Legislature does not act by Oct. 1 to restore the March presidential primary election. Several longtime Republican officials then spoke out against the caucus, expressing concerns the caucus’s in-person participation requirement and time commitment could drastically reduce voter participation and drive a wedge in the party. For example, 44,672 people participated in the Republican presidential caucus in 2012, the Spokesman-Review reported. But when the Republican Party switched back to a presidential primary election during the next presidential election in 2016, the number of voters who participated increased to more than 225,000, according to the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office.

Idaho Democrats, meanwhile, have called on the Idaho Legislature to convene a special session to restore a presidential primary election.

Last week, House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, told the Sun she supports a special session to restore the presidential primary election and doesn’t care as much about the debate between the March and May dates so long as voters can participate in a presidential primary election instead of a caucus.

What would the special session be about in Idaho?

The Senate petition for a special session calls for the Idaho Legislature to consider a bill that would move the presidential primary election to May and give political parties a choice of whether to participate in that May primary or instead hold their own presidential nominating caucus. Under a draft bill, political parties would have until Oct. 1 in the year preceding a presidential election to notify the Secretary of State’s Office whether the party intends to hold a caucus instead of participating in the May primary election. If a political party chooses to hold a caucus, the party would also need to provide a list of caucus sites to the Secretary of State’s office by Jan. 1 and certify that the party has the funding to conduct its own caucus. If the party cannot provide the caucus sites and certification of funding by Jan. 1, then that party would automatically participate in the May presidential primary election.

Supporters of the special session said their proposal prioritizes voter participation by establishing a May presidential primary as a default while giving political parties a choice in the matter.

“We strongly uphold our democratic responsibility to provide every Idahoan with the opportunity to have their voices heard and their votes make an impact,” Winder said in a written statement. “I am hopeful that our colleagues in the House will support the special session on this critical issue.”

Senate Assistant Majority Leader Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, also supports the petition for a special session.

“While the early stages of the nomination process certainly hold significance, it’s important to recognize that a competitive race can extend beyond March,” Lee said in a written statement. “A May primary empowers Idaho Republicans to play a pivotal role in shaping the outcome of the nomination by strategically positioning their votes behind candidates who remain in contention.”

“It is concerning that those who care about secure elections prefer a caucus where votes are counted in barns and backyards instead of Idaho’s tried and proven ballot process for such a critical election,” Lee added, criticizing the caucus process.

It is too early to tell how House members will react to the petition.

Rep. Wendy Horman, a Republican from Idaho Falls who is the co-chair of the influential Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, said that she had yet to receive any official communication from the Idaho Senate or the Idaho House about a special legislative session as of noon on Wednesday.

Horman said she was forwarded a copy of the Senate petition, but she has not yet been persuaded the issue is pressing enough to convene a special session, which would entail paying for travel, meals, expenses and hotel stays for many of the Idaho Legislature’s 105 members.

“Right now, with the information I have, it seems like something we can take care of in January, if need be, and save the taxpayers a lot of money by waiting,” Horman said in a telephone interview.

The next regular session of the Idaho Legislature begins in January.

Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle,has been circulating a different petition for a special session and favors reinstating the presidential primary election in March. Herndon opposes calling a special session to move the primary election to May, which he said would be a waste of time and money.

“The Republican Party is going to hold a caucus unless by Oct. 1 the Legislature, with the governor signing it, recreates a March presidential primary,” Herndon said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Idaho Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Idaho Capital Sun maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Christina Lords for questions: Follow Idaho Capital Sun on Facebook and Twitter.