Idaho's Crossover Voter Problem
Somewhere between 16,000 and 40,000 Democrats voted as Republicans in the 2022 primaries.
Crossover voting—where Democrats cross over to vote in the Republican primary or vice versa—is a feature, not a bug, of primary elections.
Crossover Voting as a Feature
Idaho adopted the closed primary in 2013. Before 2013, Idaho had an open primary system, where anyone could ask for a Democrat or a Republican ballot on primary day and then select candidates from that party. The next election that voter could select someone from the other party, without re-registering.
Closed primaries are closed to a party’s partisans. Identifying as a partisan involves filling out a party registration form. In Idaho’s closed primary, voters who register with a party 30 days prior to the primary election may vote in that party’s primary. There is no vetting process or purity test for voters. People simply self-identify as partisans. The unaffiliated can even declare a party on the day of the primary election.
Under the closed primary rule, Idaho's Democrats are tempted to drop their Democrat affiliation given the Republican Party’s dominance. Laziness or a sense of honor might prevent a Democrat from identifying as a Republican voter in the primary. Many Democrats no doubt are honorable or lazy. But many decide to jump into the Republican primary to skew it in the direction of the Democrats.
Then, presumably, after the primary, Democrats who crossover to vote for Republicans in the primaries return home to the Democrat Party in the general election.
Closed primaries as such cannot stop voting partisans from one party from identifying as voting partisans of the other party in the primaries. This is a feature, not a bug, of the closed primary system.
The Scope of the Problem
How many Democrats crossed over to vote in the 2022 Republican primary?
Look at raw voter registration numbers. On January 1, 2022, there were 531,420 registered Republicans and 134,908 registered Democrats in Idaho. By April 1, the number of registered Republicans swelled to 546,226 while the number of registered Democrats shrunk to 129,728. There are many reasons to unregister as a Democrat, but many of those who dropped their Democrat registration switched parties to help select liberal Republicans. The bare minimum of Democrat to Republican crossover voters is 5,000. Even Idaho’s lapdog media accepts that number.
There are three good reasons to think the number is many times higher than that. First, Democrats have been changing registrations since the closed primary was adopted in 2013. The cumulative effect of crossover voting makes it hard to pin an exact number down, so all numbers are estimates based on horse sense and trends. Perhaps only 1,000 statewide do it an election cycle, but that adds up over time.
Second, despite the state’s amazing growth in the past four years, the number of registered Democrats has trailed the growth of the state. The number of registered Democrats has not grown as much as it should have between 2020 and 2022, and Democrats did not vote in the primaries in the numbers they should have, given the state's growth.
Consider the chart.
The natural increase in registered Idaho Democrats suddenly slows in 2022. The number of registered Democrats in Idaho increased 16,000, between 2014 and 2016 and then it increased 17,000 between 2016 and 2018 and then it increased 37,000 between 2018 and 2020. Suddenly, between 2020 and 2022 growth stalls at 3,000. The number of registered Democrats should be between 142,000 (assuming slowest growth) and 160,000 (assuming highest growth). There are at least 16,000 missing registered Democrats, but possibly as many as 34,000.
There are also a lot of missing Democrat primary voters. The number of Democrat primary voters decreased by 53,000 between 2020 and 2022 and it decreased by 32,000 between 2018 and 2022. The lack of competition explains part of the decrease. Many Democrats may have stayed home in 2022 since there were no competitive Democrat primaries. Still, the number of Democrat voters in 2022 was similar to the number in 2014! Something’s happening here.
Idaho’s growing population gives more reason to be suspicious. Idaho’s population was 1.754 million in 2020 but will be 1.98 million in 2022 (according to estimates). Republican registrations went up nearly 90,000 in that time period. Democrat registrations went up only 3,000. While more conservatives than liberals may be moving to Idaho, the ratio is not 30:1. Even if it is 10:1 (also a conservative estimate), the number of Democrats registering as Republicans must increase by about 6,000.
Clearly, a good number of Democrats are either dropping their party affiliation or are never affiliating with the Democrats in the first place.
The last part of the theory is that Democrats who vote in Republican primaries return home in the general election. The existence of a large unaffiliated voting block hampers our ability to make estimates. Nobody knows exactly who the unaffiliated vote for in the general election. Still, the numbers support the idea that de-affiliated Democrats return home in the general election.
Notice on our chart above that the number of Democrat votes in the general election is always more than twice the number of registered Democrats for the primaries, while the number of Republican votes in the general election is never more than 100,000 more than the number of registered Republicans. Either most of the unaffiliated voters are Democrats or a lot of Republican primary voters end up voting for Democrats in the general election (or many Republicans stay home in the Fall). Or some combination of the three. Either way, the number of Democrats who pretend to be Republicans in the primary election but return to the Democrat fold in the Fall is not insubstantial.
Will the non-entity Democrats selected in the 2022 primary get more votes in the general election than Paulette Jordan did in 2018? If so, that confirms the crossover voter theory.
Crossover Voting Only Half the Problem
Closed primaries have the problem of crossover voters, especially where one party dominates. But there is also the problem—perhaps more significant—of crossover candidates. Our next feature will show that the primary system also yields crossover candidates.