BILLINGS - Just two years after deciding to use party caucuses to choose its presidential nomination delegates, the Montana Republican Party on Friday chose to return to using primary election results in 2012.

"Quite frankly, we found (that the caucus) wasn't very popular at all," state Rep. Bob Lake of Hamilton, who chairs the party Rules Committee, said after the vote to switch back to using the primary election. "We found that some people felt disenfranchised."

The party's Central Committee, meeting at the state Republican Party Platform Convention in Billings, voted overwhelmingly to make the change.

Yet Lake and other party officials said the issue could be revisited in 2011, perhaps depending on whether Republicans are successful in trying to create a "closed" system of voting in party primary elections in Montana.

Creating a closed primary, where only those voters who register as Democrats or Republicans can vote in the party's respective primaries, would require a change in Montana law. Montana currently has an "open primary,' where any registered voter in June primary elections can choose the party primary in which they wish to vote.

The Montana Republican Party decided in 2007 to depart from tradition and use a party caucus in February 2008 to choose Montana delegates to the national party's presidential nominating convention.

Party leaders at the time argued that using June primary election results to choose the delegates made Montana's process irrelevant, because it usually occurred well after the Republican presidential nominee had been decided by much earlier primary elections and caucuses in other states.

Switching to a February caucus, in which only local and state party officials and officeholders could vote, would attract Republican presidential candidates to Montana and make the state's choice meaningful, party leaders said.

It didn't work out that way in 2008, however - DASH - and many Republican voters felt left out of the process, Lake said.

Republican presidential candidates largely ignored Montana during the 2008 campaign and the winner of the Montana's Republican Party presidential nominating caucus in February, Mitt Romney, dropped out of the race later that month.

Lake said the party's Rules Committee discussed the issue on Thursday and unanimously decided to back the proposed change, to abolish the caucus method and revert to using June primary election results as a guide for choosing Montana Republican delegates to the national presidential nominating convention.

However, on Friday morning before the party Central Committee, which voted to enact the change, some members said they like the primary-election process only if Montana switches to a closed primary, which would allow only registered Republican voters to vote in the Republican primary election. They worried that Democratic "cross-over" voters could influence the Republican presidential primary election in Montana.

Billie Orr of Gallatin County said thousands of Democrats voted in the June 8 primary for county commissioner in her county to defeat conservative Republican Scott Sales in his primary challenge Republican County Commissioner Joe Skinner.

If the 2011 Legislature doesn't change state law to have closed primaries, the party might consider at next year's state convention to go back to the caucus system for the 2012 presidential nomination process, some Central Committee said.


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