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Bill would set earlier cutoff for unaffiliated voters ahead of May primary

Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, is co-sponsoring the bill with Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee.

BOISE, Idaho — This story originally appeared in the Idaho Press.

New emergency legislation introduced Thursday by two GOP lawmakers, one of whom is running for Idaho secretary of state, would require unaffiliated voters to affiliate with a party by March 11 to vote in that party’s closed primary in May.

Currently, unaffiliated voters have until Election Day to make that change, and only affiliated party members are subject to the March 11 deadline if they decide to switch parties.

Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, is co-sponsoring the bill with Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee.

Under current Idaho law, members of a political party must switch affiliations by the end of the candidate filing period before a primary election, or they can’t do it for that election, but unaffiliated voters can switch right up to Election Day. In Idaho’s closed Republican primary, only affiliated party members may cast ballots.

Idaho’s Democratic primary election is open, meaning unaffiliated voters and even GOP-affiliated voters or those affiliated with third parties can cast ballots in it, along with registered Democrats; the Republican primary election, by contrast, allows only affiliated Republicans to vote. Under Idaho election laws, that call is up to the parties. 

Souza and Troy’s new bill includes an emergency clause, which would make it apply in this year’s primary election.

Troy presented the bill to the House State Affairs Committee on Thursday, saying, “Unaffiliated voters, if they choose to participate in a primary for the Democrats or the Republicans, would have to change their party affiliation at the same time as the major parties in the state.”

There were no questions from the committee members; Rep. Kevin Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, moved to introduce the bill, clearing the way for a full hearing, and his motion passed unanimously.

The candidate filing period this year runs from Feb. 28 to March 11. That means under the bill, any unaffiliated voter who wants to vote in a closed party primary in the May 17 primary election would have to make that decision and change affiliation by March 11.

Troy said the change is intended “just to make a level playing field, so that the dates are the same for everyone.” She said in her view, it wouldn’t make it any harder for unaffiliated voters to decide to affiliate with a party and vote in a primary election, “they just have to do it sooner.” 

The new bill’s fiscal note says, “There is minimal to no cost associated with this effort, and it will save poll worker time on Election Day by not having to record any change of affiliation at the polls.”

The bill’s emergency clause makes it effective as soon as it’s signed into law.

The bill’s introduction comes amid much talk in political circles about unaffiliated voters or Democrats registering as Republicans in order to vote in this May’s hotly contested GOP primary. Souza is among three candidates vying for the Republican nomination for secretary of state; the other two are Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley; and Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane.

The GOP primary in May features contested races up and down the ballot, from governor to legislative posts.

The Idaho Democratic Party criticized the new bill in a statement emailed to the Idaho Press on Thursday, saying, “Idaho Democrats believe the right to vote is fundamental to our democracy. We’re committed to protecting and defending voting rights for every single Idahoan — regardless of their political affiliation. Because the Idaho Republican Party has chosen to close its primary, this bill would further disenfranchise the over 250,000 unaffiliated voters in our state. We should do more to involve all Idahoans in the political process rather than pass laws that do the complete opposite.”

Souza told the Idaho Press, “The reason for the bill is to just make all the rules fair for everyone, level the playing field.”

Asked about the emergency clause, she said, “We wanted to get it out really quickly, so it would not be a burden for county clerks to adjust their procedures. It’s a simple change.”

This story originally appeared in the Idaho Press, read more on IdahoPress.com.

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