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Former Idaho Gov. Butch Otter endorses open primary ballot initiative


September 13, 2023

by Clark Corbin, Idaho Capital Sun

Former Idaho Gov. Butch Otter endorsed the open primary ballot initiative today, becoming the highest profile member of a group of more than 100 Republicans who support the initiative. During a press conference this morning at the Idaho State Capitol in Boise, leaders of a coalition called Idahoans for Open Primaries announced that Otter and former Idaho First Lady Lori Otter were among a list of 116 Republicans who have signed on to endorse the open primary ballot initiative. 

Butch Otter spoke at the press conference and said he has opposed closed primary elections for years.

“The right to vote is one of the most precious rights that Americans have,” Otter said in a written statement before today’s press conference. “Every registered voter should have the right to weigh in on choosing our leaders. Independents, including a lot of military veterans, have been excluded from having their say because of the closed GOP primary.”



Idaho has had a closed primary law since the Idaho Legislature passed House Bill 351 in 2011. The closed primary law means that political parties don’t have to let voters who are not affiliated with the party vote in that party’s primary election. The law gives political parties the ability to open their primary election to unaffiliated voters or voters from a different party if party leaders officially notify the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office by the last Tuesday in November prior to a primary election. 

During Idaho’s most recent primary elections in 2022, only the Democratic Party opened its primary election to other voters. 

Members of the coalition Idahoans for Open Primaries are gathering signatures hoping to qualify their ballot initiative to go before Idaho voters in the November 2024 general election. The coalition includes the group Reclaim Idaho, which was behind the successful Medicaid expansion ballot initiative that more than 60% of Idaho voters supported in 2018.

The open primary initiative seeks to end Idaho’s closed party primary elections and replace them with a single primary election where all candidates and all voters could participate, regardless of party affiliation. The top four vote-getters from the primary election, regardless of party affiliation, would then advance to the general election in November.

The initiative would also change the general election by replacing it with a ranked choice, or instant runoff election system. Idaho voters would vote for their favorite candidate and then have the option of ranking the three remaining candidates on the ballot in order of preference. Under that system, the candidate with the fewest voters would be eliminated and the votes for that candidate would instead be transferred to the voter’s second choice of candidate. That process would continue until there are just two candidates remaining and the candidate with the most votes wins and is elected. 

Otter said the ballot initiative is modeled after a similar ballot initiative that Alaska voters approved in 2020. 

“The system worked well in Alaska in 2022,” Otter said in a written statement. “The idea that the system will hurt the Republican Party was debunked by the election results.” 

Otter said Alaska’s Republican governor and U.S. senator were re-elected in 2022 and 85% of voters said the voting system was “simple.” 

The list of former Republican elected officials includes former Lt. Gov. Jack Riggs and former Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, who served as co-chair of the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Former Sens. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene; Denton Darrington, R-Declo; Laird Noh, R-Kimberly; Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston; Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian and Reps. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry; Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls; and George Eskridge, R-Dover.

Former Speaker of the Idaho House Bruce Newcomb and former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones — both Republicans — organized the group of 116 Republicans who have endorsed the open primary ballot initiative. 

Idaho Republican Party state and county chairs urge opposition to ballot initiative

Meanwhile, Idaho Republican Party Chairwoman Dorothy Moon and Kootenai County Republican Central Committee Chairman Brent Regan oppose  the open primary ballot initiative. 

In an Aug. 23 column, Regan sarcastically mocked the open primary initiative, which he said is confusing and would benefit progressive Democrats.

“Our intellectual betters at Reclaim (Idaho) know that using our current arcane system where political parties nominate candidates to run for office and are elected using one man one vote produces results progressives find unacceptable; they lose,” Regan wrote, urging readers to decline to sign the petition.

In an Aug. 18 column, Moon wrote that the open primary ballot initiative is a complex scheme that sidelines political parties.

“Make no mistake, this initiative is a pernicious plot to take away your ability to vote for conservative lawmakers,” Moon wrote. “The blanket primary takes away your right to nominate your own candidates – just as BYU doesn’t get to decide who starts at quarterback for BSU, neither should Democrats get to vote on who represents the Republican Party in the general election.”

What will it take to get the ballot initiative in Idaho’s November 2024 general election?

In order to qualify the ballot initiative for the November 2024 general election, supporters must gather signatures from 6% of registered voters statewide and 6% of voters in 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts. In order to meet the statewide requirements, Idahoans for Open Primaries must collect signatures from about 63,000 registered voters.

They have until May 1 to turn the signatures into the state. 

If they meet the requirements to qualify for the election, it would take a simple majority of voters to pass the ballot initiative.



Idaho Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Idaho Capital Sun maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Christina Lords for questions: info@idahocapitalsun.com. Follow Idaho Capital Sun on Facebook and Twitter.

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