Reclaiming Idaho: Ranked-choice voting on the ballot

Yes, Idaho. Now I get why you may not agree that Idaho is a battleground, seeing that Idaho politicians have done their best to make Idaho synonymous with their hateful political climate instead of their bountiful potatoes, but it’s true. You see, there are actually three political parties currently in Idaho: the Democrats, the traditional Republicans, and the extremist Republicans. The extremists currently control the legislature, which is why numerous unconstitutional fascist laws have been passed, including one that makes it a crime to drive a rape victim out of the state to get an abortion.

The GOP divide in this state is so bad that the former lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin, a Trump extremist, tried seizing power in a coup on two separate occasions when Gov. Brad Little (a Republican) left the state. (In Idaho, unlike most states, the top two roles are elected separately.) Yet things weren’t always this bad. Not too long ago, Idaho was considered a moderate political state. Although Republicans have controlled a supermajority in both chambers of the Idaho legislature since 1993, the Idaho Senate was evenly split as recently as 1992. Even when Democrats started losing ground in the ’90s, largely due to the big-moneyed efforts of the oil and gas industry, moderate Republicans dominated. This all changed in the mid-2000s, when the state Republican Party was seized by right-wing zealots. These people hate the moderates more than the Democrats, and essentially fractured the state party into two warring factions.

Idahoans are fed up with the nonsense, but there is now finally something they can do about it. There is a coalition and a plan to fix the politics of the Gem State, and it’s real enough that the extremist Republicans are doing everything they can to stop it. You can help out Idaho, but the first step is to pay attention to what’s happening in this state.

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When I ask people to tell me what they think is the most solidly red state, Idaho is usually someone’s answer. It’s considered so right-wing that other conservatives have moved there from other states. In fact, this past year Idaho has made national headlines for its MAGA extremism. In addition to the so-called “abortion trafficking” law, the legislature passed laws reinstating firing squads for the death penalty, banning gender-affirming medical care for transgender kids, and even punishing doctors who dare to refer women to out-of-state doctors for reproductive issues. Doctors not willing to live under such fascist laws have been leaving the state in droves.

Far-right former Idaho Lieutenant Governor Janice Kyes McGeachin

Democratic politicians have been personas non grata in the state, but that wasn’t always the case. Idaho, as recently as late last century, produced powerful Democratic leaders like Senator Frank Church and Gov. Cecil Andrus, who were known for their moderate, pragmatic politics.

Yet ever since the 2007 right-wing takeover, the state GOP has been dominated by extremists. The far-right faction has managed to secure narrow wins in primaries for statewide office; but it often loses in the downballot races. Just as the nation was forced to witness the repeated House speaker fiascos with the GOP on Capitol Hill, when Republicans have power, their inner factions want to destroy each other as much as they want to destroy the other party.

This situation hasn’t been tenable for the past few years. On multiple surveys, the overwhelming majority of Idahoans value strong public schools, and yet Idaho is dead last of 50 states in funding for K-12 education. In 2018, 61% of Idahoans voted in favor of Medicaid Expansion. Yet for the past six years, Idaho legislators have refused to take action.

In response, a nonpartisan open-government group called Reclaim Idaho formed. “I used to be a Republican,” said Jim Jones, a spokesperson for the Idaho Open Primaries Initiative. “Traditional Republicans are sick at heart as to what has happened here in Idaho.”

Although the group is pushing for common-ground issues such as affordable health care, protected public lands, and strong public schools, they are trying to hold legislators accountable by eliminating closed partisan primaries and changing to a ranked-choice voting system (or RCV), similar to the one adopted in Alaska. A lot of people see RCV as a way to cure many of the ills of our current first-past-the-post system. After all, it eliminates wasted votes, the need for multiple elections, determines the candidate with the strongest support, and actually has shown to encourage civil campaigning. Currently, Reclaim Idaho is working with other groups to gather signatures for a voter initiative that would force an open primary in which the top four candidates would advance to a ranked-choice election in November.

Reclaim Idaho’s signature drive to get the initiative on the 2024 ballot began this past August, with the group aiming to gather over 63,000 valid signatures by May 2024. If successful, this initiative has the potential to change the political landscape of Idaho by empowering moderate Republicans and allowing greater inclusivity for independent and Democratic voters.

RCV is not a new concept, and its effectiveness has been demonstrated in other states, particularly in Alaska. If you need proof that ranked choice can reduce extremism and increase civility in government, look no further than the 2022 Alaskan congressional race featuring Sarah Palin. Mary Peltola’s successful strategy was to actually emphasize local concerns and run a positive campaign, which led to her getting second place votes that helped put her over the top. Compare this with the campaign Palin ran, which was not only nasty but foolish since she demanded that Republicans ignore the ranked choice option. People who might have been inclined to put her as a second choice after Nick Begich III, a Republican, didn’t bother voting for her at all.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 14: Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin speaks with reporters as she leaves federal court on February 14, 2022 in New York City. On Monday U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff announced that he is set to dismiss Palin's lawsuit against the New York Times (NYT) stating that Palin failed to show that the NYT acted with
Sarah Palin

When Palin was running, she assumed she was a lock as the right-wing former governor of a red state. Palin came to prominence when she was irresponsibly elevated to a national platform to help John McCain’s failing 2008 presidential campaign.

Her legacy has been to help steer the modern GOP from dog-whistling to open racism, to openly embrace the culture wars in place of any policy, and to make ignorance a source of pride. In many ways, she was the precursor to the modern, more bigoted, hateful, and dangerous empty-headed politicians, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.  

When asked what she would do for Alaskans in congressional office, Palin—thinking it’s still 2013—promised to look into Hillary Clinton’s emails and Benghazi. Palin’s loss to now-Rep. Peltola demonstrated how the system can result in candidates with broader appeal ultimately securing victory.

If Reclaim Idaho can secure the necessary signatures and the initiative passes, Idaho’s political future could be significantly altered. The state may see more politicians in the mold of Sen. Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, who is known for her moderate and pragmatic approach to governance. (Murkowski endorsed Peltola over Palin in the 2022 race.) This could reshape Idaho’s political landscape, shifting the balance of power away from the far-right Republicans who have held sway for over a decade. Democrats would be foolish to ignore what is happening in Idaho, and need to focus more on Reclaim Idaho’s efforts.

The far-right Republicans who currently control the state party are vehemently opposed to this initiative, for obvious reasons. They recognize that under such a system, the top four candidates are likely to include a far-right Republican, a moderate Republican, a Democrat, and another candidate. After eliminating the fourth-place finisher through RCV, the competition would typically narrow down to a moderate Republican and a Democrat. This new system would render it difficult for far-right Republicans to win statewide offices, a prospect they are keen on preventing.

The battle for ranked-choice in Idaho, which is a popular idea in the state, has ignited a fierce political struggle. The extremists who control the state party are determined to block the initiative at all costs. Expect the conservative media propaganda machine and typical right-wing billionaires to invest time and money to derail the initiative. Five states, all under complete control of Republicans, have banned ranked-choice voting: Montana, South Dakota, Florida, Tennessee, and Idaho. (Although GOP lawmakers have already passed legislation to ban ranked choice in Idaho, if the amendment passes, it would automatically repeal that law.) 

Oklahoma is considering a ban as well. Conservative groups like the misnamed “Honest Elections Project” are also attacking it. (Having legislators being held accountable and representing the people is an untenable situation, and might give other states a bad idea.)

Republican lawmakers are so terrified of voter initiatives like this one that they have already made Idaho one of the most difficult states in the union to get them on the ballot. Yet each session they try to make it even harder to amend the state constitution. One proposed amendment would have required, in addition to an already high signature threshold, to have 6% of legal voters from every single one of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts to sign a petition for an initiative. This is an odious requirement, and limits the influence of grassroots movements.

IDAHO FALLS, ID - AUGUST 25: (L-R) Ashley Ralston and Keri Taylor protest in support of abortion rights on August 25, 2022 in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Idaho's trigger-law went in to effect Thursday, making most abortions illegal in the state. When asked why only two people attended the protest Taylor said,
Democrats would be foolish to ignore what is happening in Idaho, and need to focus more on Reclaim Idaho’s efforts.

Raúl Labrador, the state’s Republican attorney general, also tried to derail the initiative on such a bad-faith legal argument that the conservative state Supreme Court forced Labrador to reimburse Reclaim Idaho’s legal fees. The state GOP chair, Dorothy Moon, has barnstormed across the state spending a lot of money on a campaign to destroy it. One of her stunts was telling: She invited Palin to speak on how she lost due to RCV.

Democrats have a chance to win again, and they are preparing. They have organized in all 44 counties in Idaho for the first time in decades. Now, every county has a precinct committee captain, county chair, or another type of volunteer working on behalf of the party. Jared DeLoof, the state party’s executive director, said the party has been buoyed by record fundraising, which has helped them build an infrastructure. “If you wanted to run for office as a Democrat in Oneida County, there was no one for you to call,” DeLoof said. “We are planting the seeds for things that we really believe are going to pay off for Idaho Democrats in the future.”

RCV is by no means a cure-all. It does nothing to address gerrymandering, which is one of the biggest threats our democracy still faces. It’s more complicated, and there are initial investments in updating voting equipment. And finally, let’s be real: It doesn’t structurally favor any one party, but it always challenges the status quo. It helps voters elect those who have the strongest support. This doesn’t always work in the Democrats’ favor. In New York City, liberals were furious that a moderate won with RCV. However, in all fairness, the only places that have outright banned RCV have been Republican strongholds.

Republicans have a lot more to fear than Democrats when it comes to winning over voters. If ranked-choice voting can mean more fair representation everywhere, even in deep red Idaho, then sign me up.

RELATED STORY: Ranked choice voting bill moves to hearing in front of Wisconsin Senate elections committee

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