BOISE, Idaho -- A new closed primary system takes effect in Idaho today, requiring voters to publicly record their party affiliation.
Idahoans historically haven't had to identify a party preference. Now, however, they'll be asked to choose from among four parties when they register to vote: Republican, Democrat, Constitution or Libertarian. If they refuse, they'll automatically be recorded as "unaffiliated" or independent -- which may or may not limit their ballot choices beginning next year.
"People are going to be angry," predicted Nez Perce County Clerk Patty Weeks. "I base that on the level of irritation and anger we see now, just from voters having to pick which ballot they want -- and we have no idea what they pick."
Beginning with the 2012 primary, though, those choices will no longer be private. They'll be public record.
"The hard-core party folks will say it's a good thing, but the more independent voters will say it's nobody's flippin' business," Weeks said. "We've talked about how to handle complaints, but if people don't like it they really need to be talking to their legislators."
The new system resulted from an Idaho Republican Party lawsuit. Party officials challenged the old open primary system, saying it undermined their selection of party representatives by allowing Democrats and other nonparty members to "cross over" and vote the Republican ballot, influencing which candidate prevailed.
The new system lets each party decide for itself whether to open its primary to independents and/or members of other parties. It's possible, for example, Idaho Republicans would only allow party members to vote in their primary, whereas Idaho Democrats could open its primary to independents. If all the parties decide to keep their primaries closed, independent voters will only be eligible to vote for nonpartisan positions, such as port commissioners and judges.
Neither major party has indicated which direction its leaning for the 2012 primary. They don't have to announce that decision until six months before the May 15 election.
People who are already registered to vote technically don't have to re-register before then; they can designate their party preference at the polls the day of the primary. However, Weeks and Latah County Clerk Susan Petersen are encouraging people not to wait.
"We'd like to get as many people as possible registered the way they want before the primary," Petersen said. "Election Day registration takes time and slows things down."
Voters can change their party affiliation by filing a signed form with the county clerk; the deadline for doing so is the last day of candidate filing, which is about two months before the primary.
Weeks said there are still questions surrounding the new system, such as how to handle absentee voters or people in mail-in precincts. At some point, though, everyone will have to fill out a party affiliation form so poll workers will know which ballot they can receive.
The new system won't affect the general election. Regardless of party affiliation, voters will be free to choose from among all the candidates in a given race.
To see more of the Lewiston Tribune, go to www.lmtribune.com.
(c) 2011, Lewiston Tribune, Idaho
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.