Next week is important both in Washington and in Idaho
Anyone traveling into Idaho knows that something is up. Signs displaying candidate names have popped up like dandelions. Next Tuesday, May 17, Idahoans can go to the polls to decide who will appear on the November 8th midterm general election ballot. Households in Idaho have been deluged with campaign mail for weeks.
In contrast, in Washington State, next week, May 16-20, is “Filing Week”. Friday, May 20, is the deadline for candidates for this year’s elections to file their paperwork with either the Office of the Secretary of State or the Office of the County Auditor (depending on the elective office sought) in order to appear on the Primary Election ballot for August 2. Unless voters in Washington are paying close attention to sparse articles in the paper or have been checking with the WA State Public Disclosure Commission to see who is raising campaign money, next week will be the first time that this year’s Washington State elections will be on the radar of most potential voters.
Why the stark difference between the electoral conduct of neighboring states? Article I, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution reads:
The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for [U.S.] Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations…
Let’s unpack that. The U.S. Constitution leaves to each state to establish rules and regulations concerning how it will elect U.S. Senators and Representatives (and its own elected officials). As a consequence, the electoral landscape evolved differently in every state. When one moves from one state to another one must reckon with a different set of rules and deadlines. It is worth noting that Article I, Section 4, also explicitly reserves the right of the U.S. Congress to override the states’ rules—at least insofar as they pertain to the elections of U.S. Senators and Representatives. Hence, the constitutional validity of the Voting Rights Act of 1965—at least until the 5–4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) gutted an essential clause. Removal of the preclearance clause provided the opening for many Republican-controlled states to restrict access to voting.
The contrasts between voting arrangements in the neighboring states of Idaho and Washington go far beyond dates of primary elections. Washington State has a “top two” primary system in which the two top vote-getters in the August primary advance to the November general election regardless of their political party affiliation. Such an open system arguably weakens the role of the political parties in endorsing candidates. Candidates declare a party preference on the ballot, but it is up to the voter to determine what the party thinks of the candidate. A Washington primary voter may cast a vote on the same ballot for a “prefers Republican Party” candidate in one race and a “prefers Democratic Party” candidate in another. The voter endeavors to advance the best candidate to the November general election in each race regardless of party affiliation. (Ranked Choice Voting would be even better, but the top two primary system is a good one.)
Things are very different in Idaho. The contrast is especially acute in neighboring North Idaho. The powers that be in the Idaho Republican Party have tried, with considerable success, to make the Party into a private club of extremists. Anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the furthest right orthodoxy is branded a RINO, a Republican In Name Only. Instrumental in this process was establishing “closed” Republican primary. Here’s what Jim Jones, former Idaho Attorney General and former Idaho Supreme Court Justice, has to say on the subject (the article is well worth reading in its entirety):
Comparing the Idaho legislative session this year  with those I have observed over the last half century, this was decidedly the worst.
Legislators variously proposed or passed unconstitutional bills, tried to make the initiative and referendum unworkable, refused to take the COVID-19 crisis seriously, shot down funding bills for no valid reason, tried to solve non-existent problems like critical race theory and generally conducted themselves like irresponsible nitwits. It does not have to be this way…
The Republican Party decided to close its primary to all but declared Republicans in 2007 to purge more moderate, pragmatic candidates from its ranks, and that is just what has happened. When Idaho’s open primary, where any voter could request and vote the primary ticket of either party, was challenged in federal court by the Republicans, the judge quoted expert testimony that closing the primary would have the “very real and immediate effect of … producing more ideologically extreme candidates.”
The federal judge, believing that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution required it, ruled in March 2011 that the Republicans could close their primary. And, sure enough, each Legislature since that time has become more dysfunctional and untethered from reality.
Among Jones’ recommended fixes for this insanity are a top two primary like that of Washington State—or Ranked Choice Voting.
Idaho was already on its way to becoming a one party (Republican) state before the 2011 ruling that allowed Republicans to close their primary, but the closed primary, as Jones explains, has made it far worse. Recently, a tally of the party registrations of voters in Bonner County (which includes Sandpoint) showed 18,563 registered Republicans; 3,608 registered Democrats; and 8,556 unaffiliated voters. In elections in Bonner County, Idaho, nine out of eleven local races will be decided by the voting in the closed Republican primary next Tuesday: there is no Democrat on the Democratic Party ticket running for those nine positions. Unaffiliated voters who bother to show up at the polls and cannot stomach the idea of declaring themselves Republicans for the purpose of voting on the Republican primary ballot will only be able to vote on judgeships.
What sort of candidates are on the Republican primary ballot? Most of you are familiar with the breathless, pistol-kissing, Trumpian antics of Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin in challenging sitting Governor Brad Little, but there are many local spectacles, too. My personal favorite is Scott Herndon, chair of the Bonner County Republican Central Committee. He is the patriarchally bearded father of seven who, with his allies, is running a dishonest smear campaign against the incumbent Republican State Senator, Jim Woodward. Herndon’s attack literature has flooded mailboxes in District 1 with scurrilous crap for weeks, material so low it should be disqualifying for Herndon, not Woodward. Herndon has a history of parading his wife and children around carrying placards with photographs of bloodied fetuses. His take on government? “First, my voting record must conform to God’s standard for civil government whether or not the constituents’ values align.” [see Question 7 at that link] Christian Taliban anyone? How much more plainly theocratic can one be? Given his other actions I dread to contemplate Mr. Herndon’s concept of “God’s standard”. Among other things, Herndon’s God must consider carrying a pistol into the Sandpoint Festival as a divine right. Herndon filed a lawsuit against the City of Sandpoint around that issue (and lost).
There is well-deserved rebellion brewing against Idaho’s Republican closed primary election. If you are an Idaho resident and currently registered as “Unaffiliated” you can ask for and vote on the Republican Party ballot next Tuesday. At least that way you get a chance to choose the least extreme candidate. (You can change back the next day, and even if you do not change back the General Election in November is not “closed”, so you can vote for the best candidate on the ballot regardless of party.)
Here are some useful websites for those hoping to counteract Idaho extremism:
For recommendations for the more mainstream candidates:
In North Idaho: https://northidahovoterservices.org/about/
Idaho Statewide: Take Back Idaho
For an Idaho registered voter to check their current registration status: https://elections.sos.idaho.gov/ElectionLink/ElectionLink/VoterSearch.aspx
Then back to Washington. Pay attention toward the end of next week. There are going to be some important races statewide and in Spokane County. By Friday we’ll have an official tally of who is running.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. More of North Idaho Republican extremism is on display at the Hayden Lake-based “Watchman Ministry” website’s voter guide. There you can read candidate questionnaires posted by an entity claiming tax exempt non-profit [501(c)(3)] status, presumably on the basis of a “ministry”:
Note: In accordance with 501(c)(3) guidelines Watchmen Ministry North Idaho does not endorse or oppose any candidate for public office. Candidates’ responses are provided for Voter Educational Purposes.
That’s a thin line. The “Watchman Ministry” exists as a P.O. Box in Hayden Lake and a slick website with embedded, non-locally produced videos that claim to justify church involvement in politics and appeal to local pastors to pay attention and join in the effort. In addition, there are eight webpages of propaganda, no article of which was produced locally. Transparency? As a non-profit, the donors are hidden, expenditures (to produce a website and gather questionnaires) are opaque. Not a single local name is identified on the “Watchman Ministry” website apart from the names of the candidates.
The “Watchman Ministry” website quotes Bible verses and claims to stand for “righteousness” and “Christian values”. No church affiliation is offered, nor any linkage to any trusted local person. For all the website reveals it could be developed, funded, and run out of a think tank in Washington, D.C., or anywhere, domestic or foreign. Approach with skepticism… Perhaps this website’s best use is to help identify the religious extremists among the candidates.