President’s Column – To vote or not? New election law forces Idaho journalists to decide

Fast-forward to 2012 in Idaho. This year, for the first time ever, Idahoans have to register their political party affiliation with the state. Only those who are registered Republicans will be allowed to vote in the GOP primary election, which, in this Republican-dominated state, is, in many parts of the state, where the decisions are made as to who will represent us in our state or local government. The Democratic Party is keeping its primary open; anyone can vote in it.

But under Idaho’s new election law, sought by the majority GOP, both your party affiliation and which party’s primary you vote in will become a matter of public record. Conservative activist Wayne Hoffman of the Idaho Freedom Foundation already has hinted that he’ll track and publicize how Idaho journalists affiliate and in which party’s primary they vote.

You can remain unaffiliated and vote only on non-partisan races in the primary election, but that means you’ll vote only on judicial positions, and they may be unopposed. (In an odd quirk of our system, those judicial races on the primary ballot are actually the final decision – not just an early phase; some years, important contested Supreme Court races appear only on the primary ballot.)

All around our state, Idaho journalists are wrestling with this question: Can they vote on May 15? Or will exercising their franchise as citizens cause them to be publicly labeled as supporters of one political party or another, and therefore tainted in their reporting on all?

I’ve always voted in the past, and have always felt it was an important duty. But I would never participate in a political party caucus, an activity that is clearly a party-run event designed for partisans; my newspaper’s ethics policy expressly forbids it.

Now, the same question comes up with regard to voting in the primary election, a state-sponsored and state-funded event in which we select those who will appear on our general-election ballot in November.

At the Associated Press, there are rules about staffers expressing political opinions but not about how they register to vote. The AP says some staffers make a point of avoiding party registration, but since it’s required for participation in some primaries, they do not have a rule against it.

At first, I thought I might affiliate and vote in one party’s election or the other, then unaffiliate the next week – the law allows that – and vote the other party’s ballot at the next primary election. But a discussion with my newspaper’s editor, Gary Graham, has convinced me I can’t even go that route.

“I’m not in the business of trying to deny someone their constitutional right to vote,” Graham said. “I just can’t do that. But I would just issue one caution: If you do register as a Republican or a Democrat, and someone chooses to make an issue of it, and it ends up mushrooming into some kind of controversy, then we would end up in a position where we would have to consider moving you off of government and politics. … Worst-case scenario, that’s a possibility.”

I know some journalists feel they should never vote. Others believe primary elections are just party activities, like caucuses, and they should vote only in general or nonpartisan elections. What do you think? What will you do? It’s time for every Idaho journalist to decide.

Betsy Z. Russell is a Boise-based reporter for The Spokesman-Review, and is the president of the Idaho Press Club.