Memo to GOP: We need runoffs in Idaho primaries

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Lt. Gov. Brad Little’s victory in the Republican primary must mean that Idahoans basically are satisfied with the general direction of state government.

Not so fast. Little received 37 percent of the vote, meaning that 63 percent voted for somebody else. Congressman Raul Labrador was about five percentage points behind and Boise developer Tommy Ahlquist received 26 percent of the vote. But in Idaho’s primary format, Little marches on to the general election in November where he is likely to win.

So, who besides Little and his supporters are satisfied with this primary-election outcome? I’m not. No candidate in Idaho, or any other state, should grab a party’s nomination with 37 percent of the vote.

It’s high time for Idaho to have runoff elections for candidates receiving less than 50 percent of the vote in a primary election. Most states have them, according to Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, and it would solve problems that go with the kind of crowded primaries we saw this year. Jonathan Parker, the chairman of Idaho’s Republican Party, is friendly to the idea in future elections.

“All we’d have to do is change the rules,” he said. “It’s an idea that has merit.”

Other logistics would need to be worked out, such as the added cost and who would pay for a runoff. Denney says elections cost about $1 million, but that’s a doable amount. If it were all about money, Idaho could scrap primary elections entirely and have nominees selected at party conventions. But that would go over as well as North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un delivering a commencement address at West Point.

So, the Republican Central Committee should get it done and have runoffs in future years.

If there were a runoff this year, there would be some high drama with Little and Labrador going head-to-head, and Ahlquist out of the way. It would narrow the focus for voters and add a ton of excitement in the two or three weeks of a runoff campaign. I’m not sure who would win, but Republicans at least would have a nominee that gets more than 50 percent of the vote.

The governor’s race wasn’t the only one that had a plurality winner advancing to the general election. Russ Fulcher received 43 percent of the vote in the First District congressional race; Janice McGeachin received almost 29 percent for lieutenant governor and former state Rep. Julie Ellsworth took almost 37 percent in the race for state treasurer.

Fulcher, with his financial support from Club for Growth, probably would have no trouble getting by David Leroy – the closest competitor with more than 15 percent of the vote. But there’s no telling who would win the races for lieutenant governor and state treasurer, where the margins were close. Voters would have a chance to more closely analyze the qualifications of Steve Yates going against McGeachin or Tom Kealey running against Ellsworth.

Sure, there are negatives associated to runoff elections. Candidates would have to spend more time and money on their campaigns, and voters would have to drag themselves to the polls again. It also would mean two or three more weeks of sometimes disgusting TV advertising. But the negatives pale in comparison to having plurality winners in crowded primaries.

I’ve seen runoffs work in Arkansas, where I spent some of my early reporting years in the 1970s and early ‘80s, and they work wonderfully on balance.

“It does create added excitement, and we hope that encourages people to vote,” said Chris Powell, a spokesman for the Arkansas secretary of state’s office.

Generally, the turnout in a runoff election in Arkansas is less than the initial primary, but that shouldn’t discourage Idaho’s GOP from making the change. Those who vote in runoff elections tend to be the hardcore voters who take the time to evaluate candidates and issues – and are open to correcting mistakes that might have been made in the first go-round. Even voters deserve a mulligan once in a while.

The positives of having runoffs outweigh the negatives. On any day, I’d take a low turnout of educated voters over a high turnout of uneducated voters.

Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com

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