Allow me to provide some background on why I support ranked choice voting. After 12 years on the Idaho Supreme Court, I decided to step down at the end of 2016 and voice my opinion publicly. Earlier in my life, I’d spent eight years as the state’s Republican attorney general (1983-1991). While Republicans and Democrats frequently disagreed on policy during the 1980s, they often found common ground to address pressing state issues. For instance, I cooperated closely with Idaho’s Democratic governor to block the state’s largest electric utility from seizing and keeping control of the Snake River.
During the 1990s, the Idaho Republican Party followed the blueprint of many other red states and adopted a strategy of taking over the party apparatus by electing rightwing precinct committeemen at the grassroots level.
As the extremists’ grip on power in Idaho tightened, the state’s politics became more polarised as ultraconservatives were appointed to increasingly senior positions within the Republican Party. In 2012, when the GOP successfully imposed a closed Republican Party on the state, this trend accelerated significantly.
Since then, a small but influential faction within the Republican Party has used its majority to dominate Idaho’s politics. Since then, every primary election in Idaho has resulted in a more conservative majority in the Idaho Legislature.
Responsible Idahoans, including many reasonable, pragmatic Republicans, have had to face an annual onslaught of culture war legislation since political extremists captured the legislature. This includes a law criminalising almost all abortions and a bill making it easier to carry guns in inappropriate places, among other examples. The extremist legislators have shown no willingness to collaborate on finding solutions to the state’s actual problems.
Good governance advocates have to put in a lot of time and effort every year to counter culture war proposals that are introduced in the legislative process primarily to boost the profile of their backers. It’s been a lot of work.
A political action committee I helped found last year, called Take Back Idaho, was aimed at replacing radical Republicans in the state legislature with more reasonable centrists. The majority of our group was made up of old-school Idaho Republicans who were disgusted by the modern extremism of their party. We made significant headway in southern Idaho but retreated in the redder northern part of the state, which has been experiencing an annual increase in its red hue as a result of a large influx of extreme-right Republicans fleeing progressive states.
There has been an influx of dark money into the state to support the most extreme candidates and to oppose candidates of either party who support responsible governing, further complicating efforts to combat creeping extremism. Many red states in the Midwest and South have been hit by this trend.
So, how do you fight back against an extremist-controlled state legislature? It would make more sense to attack the source of the problem, the process used to select the people who orchestrate the divisiveness and chaos, than to waste time putting out fires that aren’t worth putting out.
Idahoans can learn from Alaska’s example and successfully implement electoral reform. Voters in Alaska adopted a ranked-choice voting initiative in 2020. It allows non-affiliated candidates to appear on the same primary ballot as party-affiliated ones. The top four candidates in the primary election are advanced to the general election ballot for ranked choice voting.
In this poll, voters rank each candidate on a scale from one to four stars. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and the votes of those who had that candidate as their top choice are redistributed to their second-choice candidate, and so on, until one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote. Users in the 49th state report that it’s a breeze to use.
Most Alaska candidates shifted dramatically to the centre and toned down their partisan posturing for the general election in 2022. Mary Peltola, a Democrat, won Alaska’s lone House seat, while Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski avoided losing her seat in a winner-take-all Republican primary. In a typical party-controlled election system, they would never have endorsed each other in the general election, but they did.
Idaho’s southern neighbour Nevada adopted a ranked choice voting system in 2022, over the objections of both major political parties. In addition, a ranked-choice voting system will be on the ballot in Idaho’s general election in 2024. An initiative of this nature would be fiercely opposed by the Idaho legislature. Legislators in 2021 passed a law making it nearly impossible for citizens to exercise their right to initiate legislation, but the law was later overturned because it violated Idaho’s Constitution.
As much as the conflict merchants try to sabotage the effort to restore responsibility and pragmatism to Idaho’s government, they will fail.