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Primary election initiative goes before Idaho Supreme Court

Deborah Ferguson argued before the Idaho Supreme Court on behalf of Idahoans for Open Primaries.
Idaho Supreme Court screenshot
Deborah Ferguson argued before the Idaho Supreme Court on behalf of Idahoans for Open Primaries.

A dispute about ballot titles went before the Idaho Supreme Court Monday. The case is about which words should be used to describe a proposed initiative should it make the ballot.

The group Idahoans for Open Primaries wants all voters to be able to vote for all candidates in primary elections, a system it calls an “open primary.”

“‘Open primary’ is an inaccurate description of the initiative mechanism that they are proposing," said Theo Wold, the state’s solicitor general. He argued the case for Labrador. Wold noted Idaho had an open primary until a federal judge ruled it illegal in 2011.

The current “closed system,” as it’s known, allows parties to require people to declare a party preference before they can vote in the primary. Republicans use that. Democrats allow people of all parties to vote in their primaries.

Attorney General Raul Labrador is tasked with writing two battle titles for the measure, one 200 words long and a 20-word descriptor. This is his short version. “Measure to (1) replace voter selection of party nominees with non-party blanket primary; (2) require ranked-choice voting for general elections.”

Labrador chose the phrase “non-party blanket primary” for the initiative’s ballot titles. He calls it a factual term.

“The attorney general has fulfilled his statutory duty, to distill the proposed initiative into 220-word combined ballot title that is truthful and neutral," Wold said.

The ballot measure’s sponsors argue the statement is neither truthful or neutral. Their attorney, Deborah Ferguson, objects to “non-party blanket primary.” She says it’s obscure and prejudicial and meant to torpedo the ballot measure.

“It’s in no way common vernacular and so I think it causes confusion and will certainly work against the initiative in the public’s understanding of whether this is a system that they would welcome," she said.

Ferguson also says the phrase “requires ranked-choice voting” is not true. She says the initiative gives voters the option of ranking candidates instead of choosing just one.

Ferguson says the attorney general is supposed to be a neutral arbiter when writing ballot titles, but argues Labrador is anything but, given a previous tweet in which he stated the initiative is a bad idea. She had an exchange with Justice Colleen Zahn.

“It seems to me that you’re asking this court to disqualify the attorney general at this point in time from performing any more function under the statute," Zahn said.

“For this particular initiative, yes," Ferguson responded.

Ferguson suggested the court could rewrite the ballot titles. She will have to wait to find out if she and the initiative sponsors get their wish. They’ve asked the court for a quick ruling so they can begin the task of collecting signatures. They’ll have to turn in their petitions with the signatures of about 63,000 registered voters by next April.

Doug Nadvornick has spent most of his 30+-year radio career at Spokane Public Radio and filled a variety of positions. He is currently the program director and news director. Through the years, he has also been the local Morning Edition and All Things Considered host (not at the same time). He served as the Inland Northwest correspondent for the Northwest News Network, based in Coeur d’Alene. He created the original program grid for KSFC. He has also served for several years as a board member for Public Media Journalists Association. During his years away from SPR, he worked at The Pacific Northwest Inlander, Washington State University in Spokane and KXLY Radio.