Ballots won’t be tabulated until June 2, but Idaho’s primary election already declared its winner: voting at home.
As of Tuesday’s deadline, more than 400,000 Idahoans had requested an absentee ballot, Chief Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck told the Idaho Statesman.
If even three-quarters of those ballots are returned, it would eclipse turnout in every primary election in this century. Among them:
l 2018 — In an election that featured Republican and Democratic contests for an open governor’s office, 269,467 people voted .
l 2016 — Despite a spirited four-way race to succeed retiring Idaho Supreme Court Justice Roger S. Burdick, only 176,806 people showed up at the polls.
l 2014 — This was the year of the Republican Civil War, where GOP insurgents made credible challenges to then-Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and 2nd District Congressman Mike Simpson. Still, only 196,982 votes were cast.
l 2010 — You’d think the Tea Party-infused enthusiasm to pick a GOP candidate for Idaho’s 1st Congressional District would have generated more voter interest. It didn’t. Turnout came in at an anemic 203,015.
l 2006 — Not only did you have a six-way GOP contest for the 1st Congressional District, but the governor’s office also was open — with nomination fights in both parties. Nonetheless, turnout fell to 184,456.
So what accounts for turnout that could approach 42 percent?
Much of the credit goes to Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, who pitched the idea of an election by absentee voting to satisfy social distancing requirements and then did everything he could to make it voter-friendly.
People had until the last possible minute on Tuesday to request a ballot and they have another two weeks to fill them out and send them back.
Denney’s office spent $500,000 getting the word out — first a mailed flier and then an absentee ballot request form — to voters. Postage on both the pre-addressed request form and the ballot itself was paid. Most candidates focus their mass mailings on likely voters; the secretary of state got the word out to all registered voters.
Don’t forget the efforts of the local county clerks, who got about six weeks to smooth out the rougher edges of this process and contended with overtime and short supplies. Just imagine how much easier it all would be if everybody had six months to prepare.
But you could hardly call this cycle’s primary election a political barn burner.
There are pockets of intraparty rivalries for legislative seats — most notably between center-right and hard-right candidates in the Idaho Falls area — as well as a few contests for county sheriff, which is the case in Nez Perce, Clearwater and Idaho counties. Neither would a Democratic contest for the right to become Republican Sen. Jim Risch’s latest general election foil explain this turnout.
The same COVID-19 pandemic that made voting at home imperative also canceled the kind of typical campaigning — door-to-door, rallies, candidate forums and even handshaking — that fuels voter awareness and interest.
All of which suggests that people avoid voting not because they want to but because it’s inconvenient to take time off work and then stand in line at the polling station. Give them the opportunity to fill out a ballot at home when they have a few minutes — or even more time if necessary to study the candidate and issues — and more Idahoans will respond.
They’re about to learn that, naysayers aside, the system has sufficient safeguards against fraud and irregularities
Of course, this is a hybrid system. In vote-by-mail states such as Washington, the ballots are distributed by mail. Idaho law puts the onus on voters to request an absentee ballot.
But the verdict is in: Nearly half of Idaho’s electorate likes voting at home.
Why wait any longer to give them the vote-by-mail system they clearly want? — M.T.