That was a compelling case Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane presented last week for another vote-by-mail election in Idaho.
Of course, that was not what McGrane was doing when he addressed the State Affairs Working Group. Like everyone else, he knows the state’s GOP leaders won’t dispense with in-person voting. But they should consider what McGrane spelled out:
l Who will you find to staff the voting stations? Most of the people who do that work are older. The average age is 68 or 69. They’re at greater risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19. Already, about a quarter of his poll workers aren’t going to show up, McGrane said.
l Where do you find places willing to host polling stations during a pandemic? Senior centers are out. So are some churches. In some cases, owners of private buildings also are declining.
l What about people who have come down with COVID-19? Being sick does not deprive them of their franchise. What do you tell that individual on Election Day? Come back in two weeks?
To respond, McGrane and his fellow county clerks want lawmakers to go into a special session and soften some of the rough edges: Create voting centers open to any voter while loosening deadlines and grant more flexibility in handling an expected surge in absentee balloting.
But having navigated through an all-absentee ballot election during Idaho’s spring primary season, you have to wonder why Gov. Brad Little, the Legislature or Secretary of State Lawerence Denney seem so unwilling to build on their success during the fall general election.
Here’s one obvious reason: During the spring, Little and Denney were operating under a stay-home order that made in-person voting impossible. The order by and large has been lifted, but the COVID-19 pandemic threat has only escalated since then.
At the time of the May 19 election, Idaho had about 2,455 confirmed cases and had suffered 74 deaths.
Now that’s up to 18,694 cases and 152 deaths. As Betsy Russell of the Idaho Press noted, two-thirds of Idaho’s COVID-19 infections have been reported since July 1.
This is all occurring during the best of times — when summer is keeping people outside. What happens in the fall and winter when more of them congregate indoors and kids are supposedly back in school?
Here are two predictions:
l David Pate, retired CEO of St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center in Boise, told Russell a model he’s seen says Idaho’s COVID-19 hospitalizations won’t peak until Nov. 22.
l Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield has outlined a confluence of colder weather, a boost in coronavirus infections and the flu season: “I do think the fall and the winter of 2020 and 2021 are going to be probably one of the most difficult times that we’ve experienced in American public health.”
Why risk surging infections from an in-person election?
The all-absentee ballot voting during the primary election no doubt was exhausting for Idaho’s county clerks. But for the voters, answering Denney’s application form, receiving a ballot in the mail, filling it out in the privacy and convenience of their homes and mailing it back seemed to work.
More than 328,000 Idahoans cast a ballot, the largest number for any primary. The 39 percent registered voter turnout rivaled that of 1980, the last high water mark, when turnout exceeded 41 percent.
Since then, President Donald Trump has bemoaned the process of voting at home: “IT WILL ALSO LEAD TO THE END OF OUR GREAT REPUBLICAN PARTY,” Trump claimed. “WE CAN NEVER LET THIS TRAGEDY BEFALL OUR NATION.”
Set aside the usual nonsense of voter fraud and what you have is fear that the greater the voter turnout, the better for Democrats.
Not so in Idaho.
Unlike most states, the expansion in voting that comes in presidential years favors GOP candidates in the Gem State. When voter interest lags during the mid-term elections, Idaho Democrats tend to do a little better.
If Little and Denney won’t buck the president or their party on this, can they at least encourage as many people as possible to vote from the safety of their own homes?
Many of the people who answered Denney’s primary election application also signed up for an absentee ballot during the fall. But just in case some of them fell through the cracks, why not have the secretary of state’s office once again send a mailer and then an absentee ballot request form to voters?
Anything less is gambling with the health of Idaho’s electorate. — M.T.