Recently, Idaho Democrats reaffirmed their commitment to an open primary, which allows any elector to choose that party’s ballot (and only that party’s ballot) in the primary election. Any voter in Idaho may choose to participate in the Democratic Party’s primary. This means that Democrats and unaffiliateds may vote in the primary, because a Republican choosing to vote in the Democratic primary would forego their right to participate in the Republican primary under Idaho law. The Democratic Party’s commitment to an open primary is significant, because it means that Idaho has both a closed and an open primary. The transition to this semi-open primary system has been rocky in the Gem State. It began in 2008 with a coup in the Idaho Republican Party. A plank was included in the platform that called for primaries to be closed. A closed primary, however, would require changes to Idaho law, which up until this summer had no provision for recording partisan registration. In order to force the state to make this change, the Idaho Republican Party sued the Republican Secretary of State, arguing that Idaho’s open primary laws violated the Constitution in an as-applied challenge.
In March of 2011 U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill concluded that the Idaho open primary law violated the First Amendment right of association that the Idaho Republican Party enjoyed. Judge Winmill relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in California Democratic Party v. Jones, which held that blanket primaries, where individuals could vote in any primary election across party lines, were an unconstitutional infringement on the associational rights of political parties. The Court reasoned that a political party would be unable to effectively convey its message if that message was in part controlled by individuals not affiliated with the party.
What is remarkable about Judge Winmill’s decision is how low the standard is for a plaintiff to show that their associational rights are being infringed. Judge Winmill relied on expert testimony to show that there was a roughly ten percent rate of crossover voting in Republican primaries. Judge Winmill acknowledged that these rates were lower than faced by the Court in Jones, but held that even lower rates of crossover voting would trigger grave Constitutional concerns. It is difficult to imagine, given Judge Winmill’s reasoning, any instance where a state could show that an open primary law could be considered constitutional in the face of a political party’s resistance to opening its nominating procedure. The Fourth Circuit seemed to agree with Judge Winmill when, in 2007, it struck down a similar open primary law in Virginia.