Idaho legislators circulating petitions to call special session to address primary

Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, has begun circulating what he said is the first of two petitions to call the Idaho Legislature back into special session to consider legislation related to the presidential primary election that legislators eliminated earlier this year.

The Idaho Legislature adjourned for the year April 6 but has the new power to call itself back into session upon a written petition signed by at least 60% of the members of the Idaho House of Representatives and Idaho Senate, thanks to Idaho voters passing Senate Joint Resolution 102 in November.

In an interview Tuesday, Herndon said he is not sure if he will be able to reach the 60% threshold.

Herndon said he began circulating a petition Sunday to call the Idaho Legislature back in for a special session “for the purpose of considering legislation that pertains to Idaho’s presidential primary election.”

A day later, Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, began circulating a different petition to call the Idaho Legislature back in session to consider a single draft bill that would create a presidential primary election in May, Herndon said.

If one of the petitions receives support from at least 60% of both of the Idaho Legislature’s two chambers, a special session would begin no later than 15 days after House Speaker Mike Moyle, R-Star, and Winder receive the petition.

Idaho Sen. Scott Herndon (R-Sagle) at the State Capitol building on Jan. 9, 2023. (Otto Kitsinger for the Idaho Capital Sun)

“I would come to a session and bring a bill reinstating the March presidential primary election we just got rid of in House Bill 138, which is what the Republican Party wants,” Herndon said in a telephone interview. “(Winder) would put in place a May primary which won’t fix the problem for Idaho voters in 2024.”

Efforts to reach Winder and Moyle were unsuccessful Tuesday morning.

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said she supports a special session to restore a primary election.

“I encourage Idahoans to put pressure on their local officials to ensure this gets resolved and we get a primary back,” Rubel said in a telephone interview. “This is unacceptable. The people of Idaho have been stripped of easy access to voting in a primary election that only happens once every four years.”

Rubel called the elimination of the presidential primary a grave, unforced error by the Idaho Legislature.

What happened to Idaho’s presidential primary election?

The Idaho Legislature seemingly unintentionally eliminated the presidential primary election altogether with House Bill 138, which Gov. Brad Little signed into law March 30.

The bill’s sponsors said the bill was intended to save the state $2.7 million every four years by moving the presidential primary election back from March to the May election date when the rest of the state’s primary elections take place. But the bill actually just eliminated the presidential primary election and didn’t move it to May. State officials and legislators identified the problem after the Idaho House passed House Bill 138, and they introduced a so-called “trailer bill” in Senate Bill 1186, which was designed to fix the problem by moving the presidential primary election to May.

But the trailer bill died in the House State Affairs Committee March 30 after Idaho Republican Party Chairwoman Dorothy Moon came out in opposition to it, and the bill didn’t get out of committee. The Idaho Legislature then adjourned for the year April 6 without addressing the presidential primary election issue.

The Idaho Republican Party responded to the lack of a presidential primary election by voting in June to create a presidential nominating caucus that will be held on the first Saturday in March — unless the Idaho Legislature reconvenes in special session before Oct. 1 to restore the March primary election.

Some members of the Republican Party worry a caucus will divide the party and result in significantly lower voter turnout because of the caucus’s requirements to attend in-person at a set date and time for a caucus that could last several hours.

But Republicans don’t all agree on the solution. Herndon and Moon support the March date for a presidential primary election, like the state has held since 2012. They say that earlier date gives Idaho more influence in the GOP presidential nominating process. They worry moving the primary election back to May will give Idaho voters less influence and may result in the primary being moved back so late that a Republican has already clinched the nomination before Idaho Republicans can vote.

On the other hand, most of the Idaho Legislature voted to pass House Bill 138, which legislators thought was moving the primary back to May and saving the state money by consolidating elections. That has been a major goal of Republican legislators including Moyle and House State Affairs Committee Chairman Brent Crane, R-Nampa. Crane told the Sun last month he doesn’t like the caucus personally and supports a May primary and opposes a March primary.

Herndon, the Republican senator who is circulating one of the petitions for a special session, voted against House Bill 138.

What is the difference between the two special session proposals?

Herndon’s petition is written more generally to call for “considering legislation that pertains to Idaho’s presidential primary election.” Herndon said that allows Idaho legislators to consider and debate more than one bill or solution.

Winder’s petition would limit the session to considering a single draft bill to create a May presidential primary election, according to copies of the petition the State Freedom Caucus Network shared Tuesday along with other documents and a press release announcing Herndon’s petition.

In a statement issued Tuesday, Moon said she opposes a May presidential primary election. Moon said the Idaho Republican Party would still conduct a caucus in March if the Idaho Legislature passes a May primary election, which she said would make the later primary election duplicative and a waste of money.

Moon does support restoring the earlier March primary election, which would supersede the GOP caucus.

“The Idaho GOP’s position remains resolute: the only conceivable scenario in which a presidential primary could take place is through the repeal of House Bill 138, thereby reinstating the presidential primary to March of 2024,” Moon said in the statement. “This perspective is firmly embedded in the will of our party members as expressed through the (Idaho Republican Party’s State Central Committee’s) decision-making process. Any other outcome will result in an unnecessary expenditure of taxpayer resources…”

Will the Idaho Legislature call a special session before Oct. 1?

Herndon said he has received some support for his petition over the past two days but is unsure if he will be able to reach the 60% threshold for each legislative chamber.

“I’d say it is too early to tell, but I am a little doubtful,” Herndon said.

Herndon, who is also a member of the Idaho Republican Party State Central Committee, said he would not sign Winder’s petition and is reluctant overall to return for a special session. Herdon noted that as a general estimate it costs $30,000 a day to conduct a special session, and he said legislators could have fixed the problem before adjourning for the year in April.

“I don’t see a strong desire in the Legislature at this moment to come back for a special session for this,” Herndon said. “It’s possible, but maybe not probable.”

Herndon said he is pursuing the special session and has a draft bill to restore the March primary election because it will allow more Republican voters to participate and retain Idaho’s influence by voting early in March.

“The thing that I believe is the Idaho Republican Party has a strong desire to see that Idaho’s Republican voters matter when it comes to choosing a nominee for president and I want to see that happen,” Herndon said.

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, represents legislative district 18 in the Idaho House.

Rubel said the issue of whether a primary election is held in May or March is secondary to the overall importance of restoring a primary election in some form or fashion. However, Rubel does support limiting the special session to a single draft bill.

“I think it would be pandemonium if we go back in without a concrete idea of what it is we’re voting on in,” Rubel said. “I don’t think it would be productive if we just went in with a general notion of arguing about primaries.”

The Idaho Legislature meets every year in a regular session that begins on the second Monday in January. Regular legislative sessions generally run for about 80 days, although there is no time limit.

Before Idaho voters approved Senate Joint Resolution 102, which amended the Idaho Constitution, only Idaho’s governor had the authority to call a special session of the Idaho Legislature.

Efforts to reach Little on Tuesday were unsuccessful. In April, Little said he did not anticipate calling a special session on the presidential primary issue. At the time, Little encouraged legislators to put forward one bill and have general agreement on it prior to a special session beginning.

Since 2000, there have been five special sessions of the Idaho Legislature — in 2000, 2006, 2015, 2020 and 2022.

Special sessions of the Idaho Legislature are officially called extraordinary sessions.

Idaho Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Idaho Capital Sun maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Christina Lords for questions: [email protected]. Follow Idaho Capital Sun on Facebook and Twitter.

Clark Corbin, Idaho Capital Sun

Clark Corbin, Idaho Capital Sun

Clark Corbin has more than a decade of experience covering Idaho government and politics. He has covered every Idaho legislative session since 2011 gavel-to-gavel. Prior to joining the Idaho Capital Sun he reported for the Idaho Falls Post Register and Idaho Education News.

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