Idaho Senate Republicans want to return to Capitol, support presidential primary in May

The turmoil over next year’s presidential primary in Idaho grew more complex Monday, when Senate Republicans proposed a special legislative session to establish a May election.

Currently, Idaho law does not allow for a presidential primary, after a bill to move the election from March to May that legislators passed earlier this year inadvertently eliminated the election altogether. In the wake of the error, state Republican and Democratic parties separately voted to hold caucuses to select their presidential nominees.

The new proposal from Senate GOP leadership would allow the parties to move forward with those plans, but if the parties choose not to caucus, the state would hold a presidential primary election in May.

Senate Republicans said the proposal is meant to protect voter access, since a caucus “significantly limits the number of citizens who can participate.”

“We would prefer a primary,” Assistant Senate Majority Leader Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, told the Idaho Statesman by phone. “If the party decides (on) a caucus, then it’s the party’s decision of a caucus, not the Legislature having left the session without any presidential primary on the books.”

Idaho Republican Party ‘resolute’ on March date

Previously, Idaho held its presidential primary in March and all other primary elections in May. This year’s House Bill 138 moved the presidential primary to May, an attempt to consolidate the primary elections, improve voter turnout and save taxpayers about $2.7 million in costs associated with a separate election.

But the bill neglected a mechanism allowing candidates to file for the election, which eliminated the presidential primary altogether. The Senate passed a trailer bill, Senate Bill 1186, that would have fixed the error, but the legislation failed in the House after Idaho GOP Chairwoman Dorothy Moon lobbied against it.

In June, the Republican State Central Committee endorsed a plan to hold a March caucus to select a presidential nominee if the Legislature doesn’t reconvene by Oct. 1 and reestablish the March presidential primary. Republican National Committee rules dictate that changes to primary election dates must be finalized by Oct. 1.

Moon previously told the Statesman that a March selection process compels candidates to focus their time and resources on Idaho. On Tuesday, she said a special session would “needlessly expend taxpayer resources” because the state party will not budge on a March date.

“The Idaho GOP’s position remains resolute: The only conceivable scenario in which a presidential primary could take place is through the repeal of House Bill 138, thereby reinstating the presidential primary to March of 2024,” Moon said in an emailed statement. “This perspective is firmly embedded in the will of our party members as expressed through the (state central committee’s) decision-making process.”

Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, on Tuesday publicized his own petition for a special session — separate from Senate Republican leadership’s petition. Herndon proposed codifying a presidential primary election date of the second Tuesday in March.

Democrats prefer primary election

The Idaho Democratic Party also plans to caucus next year. But its leaders supported moving the election to May and have since called on lawmakers to restore the primary.

House Assistant Minority Leader Lauren Necochea, D-Boise, who also serves at the state party chairwoman, called the caucus plan an “outdated” and “unwelcome outcome for voters.”

“Rather than heading to their normal polling location to cast a ballot, Idahoans will have to travel much further, arrive at a set time, and potentially sit through hours of deliberation,” Necochea said in a June news release. “For many voters — especially working people, the elderly, and families with young kids — these barriers will prevent them from having a say in the presidential nomination process.”

Senate Republicans agreed that caucuses have poor turnout and could eliminate voting access for active-duty military members, out-of-state missionaries and seniors with limited mobility, among other groups.

“There was a general consensus, across party lines, that we should consolidate these elections to a place where people were more likely to participate,” Lee told the Statesman.

What would it take to call a special session?

A special session to address the presidential primary would be the first since Idaho voters last year gave lawmakers the ability to call themselves to the Idaho Capitol. Previously, only the governor could call an extraordinary session of the Legislature.

Last year’s constitutional amendment allowed lawmakers to call a special session if at least three in five members of both the House and Senate agree to meet. The amendment stipulated that lawmakers must circulate a petition that specifies the subjects they’ll address in the special session. Lawmakers can only consider those issues when they meet.

If vote counts on the presidential primary issue during this year’s session are any indication, Senate Republican leaders won’t have a problem whipping votes in their chamber. Roughly 70% of senators supported Senate Bill 1186 in a March vote.

The House would also have to support it, however, and the full body didn’t vote on the trailer bill earlier this year. House Majority Leader Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett, told the Statesman on Tuesday that Senate Republicans have yet to provide House members with the petition.

“I wouldn’t have much comment as I have not seen it,” Blanksma said by phone. “And I don’t know of any members that have seen it at this point.”