When the Idaho Legislature passed a bill in February to ban the use of “Zuckerbucks” throughout the state, it closed a loophole and ensured that private money cannot be used to fund public elections. But the bill failed to address an even more problematic intersection of private affairs in public elections: closed partisan primaries.
Every two years, the Republican and Democratic parties — two private organizations — hold primaries using public money to determine their nominees for the general election. Spending public funds for a private purpose is already concerning, but closed primaries also make Idaho elections less competitive, which hurts all Idahoans. Studies show that electoral competition leads to a more engaged electorate, better representation of voters’ interests and even economic growth.
Unfortunately, a 2011 Idaho Supreme Court decision ruled that parties can decide whether to open their primaries. Democrats have opened their primaries; Republicans have not.
It’s important to note that competitive elections need not imply partisan balance. A strong majority of Idahoans identify as Republicans and that balance should be reflected in election outcomes. But too few voters deciding the outcomes of key races results in a phenomenon known as the “primary problem.” The winners in the primary, typically the Republican primary in Idaho, regularly cruise to victory in the general election, but these primaries are often decided by a small fraction of constituents.
Look no further than Legislative District 12, where Jeff Cornilles won a three-way Republican primary last November with 1,997 of the 5,667 votes cast before running unopposed in the general election. For a district with roughly 26,000 registered voters, support from just 8 percent of the electorate is far too low for a deciding race.
Cornilles was not the only candidate to win with little public input. Across the state in 2022, 50 of Idaho’s 105 state legislative seats featured candidates running unopposed in the general election, and another 23 races featured candidates winning with more than two-thirds of the vote. All told, nearly 70 percent of the state legislative races were uncompetitive in the general election, making the primary the decisive election. Restricting these decisive elections to only party members reduces legislative accountability and stifles competition.
The Idaho GOP could open its primaries, but it has little motivation to do so. Keeping their primaries closed artificially inflates party enrollment by encouraging voters, including those who do not share the party’s values, to register as Republicans just to have a say in their representation. But primary elections are funded by taxpayers, so voluntarily opening Republican primary elections is the right thing to do. If Republicans would rather not open them, then they should fund them privately and let taxpayers off the hook.
Another alternative is for Idaho to stop funding partisan primaries altogether. In states like Alaska and Washington, all candidates appear on a single primary ballot, with the top performers advancing to the general election. Alaska goes one step further and asks voters to rank candidates by order of preference, further increasing electoral competition and giving voters more power over their government. Alaska’s recent changes didn’t result in a substantial shift in partisan balance—like Idaho, Republicans outnumber Democrats in the state legislature and hold control of state executive offices—but the new elections were much more competitive.
Our Founding Fathers decried “taxation without representation,” but today’s closed partisan primaries shut out tax-paying voters from important public elections. Ultimately, primary elections are not private elections. And that’s why they should be open to everyone.
Matt Germer is a resident elections fellow for the Governance program at the R Street Institute.