Idaho GOP bars news media from upcoming presidential caucus, raising transparency concerns

From the Idaho Capital Sun

BY CLARK CORBIN 

News reporters will not be allowed inside the Idaho Republican presidential caucus on March 2 or allowed to observe party officials tabulating results at party headquarters, raising concerns among some transparency advocates. 

Idaho Republican Party Chairwoman Dorothy Moon and Executive Director Kiira Turnbow told the Idaho Capital Sun that Idaho Republican Party’s rules for the caucus only allow registered Republicans and their minor children to attend. The Idaho Republican Party is using 210 different caucus sites during the March 2 presidential nominating caucus. 

Some caucus sites will be held on private property, such as churches. 

But dozens of caucus sites are in public buildings, including public schools paid for by Idaho taxpayers. 

Additionally, Idaho Republican Party officials plan to close the state party’s headquarters in downtown Boise while they tabulate results that are called in from each of the 210 caucus sites. News reporters will not be allowed inside during that time but can wait outside the party headquarters, Turnbow and Moon said. Once the results have been tabulated, Idaho Republican officials plan to open the doors to their Boise headquarters, announce the caucus results publicly and post the results to the Idaho Republican Party’s website, Turnbow said. 

“As for the caucus sites, per the Idaho GOP rules of the caucus, only registered Republican voters and their minor children will be admitted into the caucus sites,” Turnbow said.  

Turnbow said that means reporters will not be allowed inside the caucus sites. When asked by the Sun, Turnbow said the rule applies equally to all news reporters, and that national outlets such as Fox News or the Wall Street Journal would also be barred from entering caucus sites and barred from observing the vote tabulation inside GOP headquarters. 

Blocking reporters from presidential caucus raises transparency concerns 

David Adler, a political scientist who has taught the U.S. Constitution and government at Idaho’s public universities and now serves as president of the nonprofit Alturas Institute, said the Idaho Republican Party’s decision to bar news reporters from access to the presidential caucus is a disturbing, anti-democratic policy “that exalts secrecy over transparency.”

“As the U.S. Supreme Court has held, the Free Press Clause acknowledges the critical role that the press plays in American society, politics and elections,” Adler said in a written message to the Sun. “Press coverage of both the caucus and the official tabulation of votes informs the public, reassures citizens about the legality and fairness of the caucus process, and confirms party representations and voting results.”

“Chairman Moon’s decision to block press access to the presidential caucus and the official tabulation of votes betrays the presumption of openness that inheres in our democracy and, certainly, in the electoral contests for public office,” Adler added. “ I don’t understand Moon’s penchant for secrecy, and question the GOP’s alleged advocacy for free, fair and transparent elections.”

Betsy Russell, president of Idahoans for Openness in Government, urged Idaho GOP leaders to reverse their decision before the presidential caucus. 

“To exclude our free press from the process by which our state’s largest party selects candidates for the highest office in our nation would be absurd and extremely inappropriate,” Russell said in a written statement. “We all know that transparency builds trust, and secrecy generates suspicion. Selecting our leaders is a public matter in this country, not something that should be conducted in secrecy in back rooms. This announcement by the Idaho Republican Party prompts the question: What are they trying to hide? I sincerely hope they rethink this decision and allow the free press to observe the process and report on it to the public, so that citizens can know the process is being carried out as promised. At a time when suspicion of public institutions is running high and conspiracy theories abound, it’s mind-boggling that a major party would want to undermine public trust by conducting such an important process in secret.”

Idaho Press Club President Melissa Davlin also raised concerns about excluding reporters from the caucus.

“For years, Republican candidates have raised questions about integrity surrounding candidate nominations and elections. Now, the Idaho Republican Party has chosen to shut out journalists for this high-interest event,” Davlin said in a statement to the Sun. “Transparency benefits everyone, from the citizens of Idaho to the party officials charged with running the local caucuses. Voters across the nation will be looking to Idaho on March 2, and it’s disappointing the Idaho GOP is making it more difficult to get information to the public.”

Jaclyn Kettler, a Boise State University political scientist, said news reporters have generally been allowed to cover caucuses – pointing to public coverage of the Iowa caucuses, for example. But Kettler said the issue of media coverage fits in with broader discussions political parties are having about how they organize themselves, make decisions behind closed doors and exclude people who are not members.

“These (political parties) are quasi private organizations, yet they are engaging in public functions,” Kettler said in a telephone interview. “But when you’re in the public realm, who gets to make that call?” 

The issue of media coverage came up recently in the Nevada caucuses, Kettler said. The Reno Gazette Journal reported Feb. 7 that Washoe County School District policy prevents the local Republican Party from banning the general public or news media from attending the Republican caucus at 16 public schools that were serving as Nevada caucus sites. 

Members of the Idaho Republican Party are running, paying for and organizing the Idaho caucus themselves – not the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office or county clerks. 

Republicans also set their own rules for the caucus, including banning anyone but registered Republican voters, candidates or their surrogates from entering the caucus sites. Moon told the Sun she is simply enforcing party rules. 

During state-run elections and primary elections, on the other hand, news reporters are allowed into polling places. Many Idaho news reporters maintain direct contact with state and county elections officials across the state on the day of elections. And news reporters are also allowed to observe the Idaho State Board of Canvassers certify the official election results.

During a breakfast meeting with reporters on Tuesday in Boise, Gov. Brad Little said he is planning to participate in the Idaho Republican presidential caucus near his home in Emmett. When asked, Little said he did not know news reporters are banned from entering and observing the caucus. 

“I did not know that; so that’s news to me,” Little said. “I’m kind of a transparent guy.”

Why is Idaho switching to presidential nominating caucuses this year? 

The caucus is new this year. Idaho Republicans have not participated in a caucus since 2012, and Idaho Democrats have not participated in a caucus since 2016. 

Idaho voters are voting in presidential caucuses instead of primaries because the Idaho Legislatureseemingly unintentionally eliminated the presidential primary election last year. The Idaho Legislature passed House Bill 138, which was intended to move the presidential primary election back from March to May, when the rest of the state’s primary electrons take place. However, House Bill 138 just eliminated the presidential primary election altogether, and legislators adjourned for the year without passing the trailer bill that was designed to fix the problem and actually move the primary election to May. 

Without a state run presidential primary election available in law, the Idaho Republican Party voted last summer to conduct a presidential nominating caucus on March 2. 

Idaho Democrats will also conduct a presidential caucus this year, but their caucus is not until May 23.

More information about the Idaho Republican Presidential Caucus is available online.

From the Idaho Capital Sun

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