While critics of Idaho’s May 16 closed primary election say the new system is chiefly to blame for Idaho’s low voter turnout, two other states with contests similar to Idaho—one with an open primary, the other with a closed primary—also struggled to attract voters to the polls to a greater degree than Idaho.
Kentucky and Arkansas held primary elections on Tuesday. Both states have an election cycle similar to Idaho; there were no U.S. Senate races or statewide races on ballots in Idaho, Arkansas or Kentucky for the May primary. All three states hosted local contests, state legislative and congressional matchups. Arkansas and Kentucky also had late-season presidential contests on the ballot; Idaho’s presidential preferences were decided at caucuses months ago.
Turnout for the Arkansas open primary on Tuesday was around 21 percent.
And Kentucky, with a closed primary, was projected to have turnout of around 14 percent. Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa says the state’s May 16 primary had a turnout of about 23 or 24 percent.
Ysursa said Idaho’s new closed primary “was certainly a contributing factor” in the state’s lackluster performance in turning out the vote but added, “I would think there’s some other factors,” adding, “Even under the open primary, (turnout) was headed down. From the calls we got, (the closed primary) gave some people a reason not to vote.”
But Idaho GOP Executive Director Jonathan Parker said the Kentucky and Arkansas experience validates the state Republican position—that other factors kept voters away and the closed primary was not much of an influence. “There wasn’t a U.S. Senate race. Congressional races weren’t all that competitive,” Parker said. “Those campaigns are the ones that raise and spend big dollars and drive voter turnout.”
Ysursa said it’s hard to compare Idaho to other states, though he is watching what other states are doing. He’s interested to see what happens in California’s new primary election system, to be used in June. That system calls for an open primary with the top two vote-getters meeting in a runoff.
“I don’t think anybody should be happy with the 23 percent turnout,” Ysursa said. “It was disappointing by any measure. People can put their spin on exactly why.”
Note: Wayne Hoffman, executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, contributed to this story.
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