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OPINION: Cure for Idaho’s extremist politics is reform of our election process

by JIM JONES/Guest Opinion
| January 27, 2023 1:00 AM

As another session of the Idaho Legislature cranks up, Idahoans shudder at the prospect of more needless political discord and legislative shenanigans. Instead of working on legislation to deal with real problems, too many extremist legislators will waste our time trying to score political points on culture war issues like critical race theory, which most of them can’t even define. It gets worse each year.

Already this year we have seen the introduction of these nonsense bills:

Senate Bill 1002 would establish an aggressor-friendly self-defense law.

Senate Bill 1006 would force local governments to enforce federal immigration laws.

Senate Bill 1007 would allow gun-toting private militias to parade around in public.

Senate Bill 1008 would encourage more concealed weapons on college campuses.

Senate Bill 1009 would prohibit the implementation of measures to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.

And the conflict merchants are just getting started. Idahoans can anticipate introduction and possible passage of bills: to force taxpayers to pay for private and parochial schooling; to ban some books from school and other libraries; to interfere with the medical treatment of transgender children; to further restrict the ability of voters and candidates to participate in electoral activities of the party of their choice; and a wide array of other culture war legislation designed to inflame and further divide Idahoans.

As in past legislative sessions, a great deal of effort will have to be expended by Idahoans of good faith and common sense to defeat these nonsense bills. But those bills will get most of the attention in the legislative session, diverting attention from real problems that need real solutions. There will be little time to consider property tax relief, child care solutions, ways to meet the State’s constitutional responsibility to adequately fund the public school system, ways to address the shortage of water supplies to maintain our agricultural industry.

If we could only conceive of one measure that would address all of these problems in one fell swoop, we could avoid storm and stress in future legislative sessions. Could it be possible that one law would produce a Legislature dedicated to responsible, pragmatic action to move the state forward, so we don’t get bogged down every year trying to swat down crazy legislation? Just so happens there is a magic bullet — a law that would open up the primary election process of all political parties to participation by all eligible voters, regardless of party affiliation.

The primary cause of dysfunction in the Idaho Legislature is the closed Republican primary election. Because extremists have taken control of that party’s structure, the most extreme candidates have a tremendous advantage in the primary election, which is the key to general election victory in most areas of this one-party state. Think of the responsible GOP legislators who were replaced by extremists in the May primary last year — Jim Woodward, Greg Chaney, Scott Syme, Jeff Agenbroad, Carl Crabtree, Jim Addis and Fred Martin. The most extreme candidates generally prevailed in other contested races. Many incumbent GOP legislators were not even contested.

The obvious way to address all of the trumped-up culture war issues that get in the way of responsible, pragmatic governing is to remove the culture warriors from the legislative body. That can be done by opening up the Republican primary and allowing all Idahoans to vote in any party primary of their choosing. That system existed in Idaho for decades before the GOP closed its primary in 2012 and it worked well.

There is an even better way to fix the system and ensure more-responsible, less-divisive government — the ranked choice system that was successfully put to the test in Alaska last year and which was adopted by Nevada voters last November. Reports out of Alaska indicate that the system was voter friendly, brought out significantly more candidates and placed better, more responsible candidates in positions of power. There is much more to say about the system, but that must be done in a later column.

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Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho Attorney General and 12 years as a justice on the Idaho Supreme Court. He is a regular columnist for The Hill online news. He blogs at JJCommonTater.com.