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Passions, turnout high in North Idaho

Matt Dingman votes Tuesday while son Garrett, 2, eats a cookie provided by poll workers at Lakes Middle School. 
 (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Matt Dingman votes Tuesday while son Garrett, 2, eats a cookie provided by poll workers at Lakes Middle School. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

In back rooms and shopping malls, from Indian Country to remote trading posts, North Idaho residents kept an ear cocked for election results on a night when steady rain dripped from an inky November sky.

People shared thoughts on jobs and wages, wars in distant lands, abortion and the environment in voices mixed with fervor and prayer and cynicism.

“No man, I don’t vote no more. It don’t mean nothing,” said George Bargas. “This vote is all about the electoral college.”

Stocky and strong with a steel-colored crew cut, Bargas was wielding a dust brush at Silver Lake Mall Tuesday evening. He hasn’t voted since Vietnam, he said, but seemed keenly aware of the issues important to this 2004 presidential race – a race drawing record voter turnouts in Kootenai County and elsewhere – and was eager to know what the latest projections had to say about the presidential race.

He served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1972, Bargas said, and got soured on politics. He thinks it’s gotten worse for the soldiers in Iraq. “At least in the jungle they’d let us shoot first. These soldiers (in Iraq) aren’t getting a good shake. The politicians aren’t letting them do their jobs.”

Not far away, Lanet Herring, an elementary school teacher from Spokane, was finishing a fast meal and said she has voted in every election since she came of age.

“I see it as a privilege,” the 52-year-old said.

On the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation, casting a vote carried the fresh feeling of a previously discounted constituency pulling up a chair at the national table and finding voice.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe joined a challenge that has spread all across Indian Country by participating in the Tribal Get Out the Vote drive. The challenge from the National Congress of American Indians tried to persuade Indians that their votes matter.

“One thing we tried to get across to tribal members was that many didn’t think of voting in the big races, because they were already called by East Coast voting,” Cookie Allan, a legislative aide for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said Tuesday night from Worley. “But we tried to point out there were local candidates who would have a direct effect on our community.”

Tribal officials, who were excited that about 550 voters turned out Tuesday, did its homework through discussions with elections officials in Benewah, Kootenai and Spokane counties to ease the sort of voter challenges that have surfaced in South Dakota and elsewhere.

“We got everything worked out ahead of time as far as bringing tribal ID and proof of physical address,” Tribal Chairman Ernie Stensgar said Tuesday. “We encouraged people, especially if they were voting for the first time, to bring documents.”

In a back room at Café Doma in downtown Coeur d’Alene, six members of the North Idaho Computer Users Group drifted in for their biweekly meeting. “I don’t think we’ve ever talked about politics before,” remarked the kindly Bill Jones, NICUG president. “This election certainly got everybody’s attention.”

Jones voted by absentee ballot and added that he has exercised his ballot rights ever since … ever since …

“Let’s see, I’m 70 now and I’ve voted since … was it 21 then when you could vote back then or 18?” he asked.

His question stumped everybody else at the table, but luckily a goateed young man in a black T-shirt arrived bearing food as the question hung, unanswered.

“Back in the ‘70s it was 21 to vote but you could drink at 18,” the young man said.

Cornered in the kitchen, where he was grilling up sandwiches, it turns out the young man is 19 and information about the right to vote is new and important.

“I voted today. This is my first one,” Josh Black said as he juggled orders and kitchen gear and conversation. “In both instances – whether Bush will be president or Kerry – I agree with each of them on some issues and I disagree with them on other issues. So it’s hard.”

For Black, the tipping point came down to the environment, he said. “We may not be here in 70 years but our kids will be, and our grandkids. It’s important to have a healthy environment.”

Lake City High School student Jeff Primozich was playing guitar with the band, Bacon, at a North Idaho College election gathering Tuesday night. At 17, Primozich isn’t voting age, but said he still “indirectly” cast a vote. One of his friends had an idea that they each “sponsor a voter” since they couldn’t vote on their own, Primozich said. Primozich asked his mom, who hasn’t voted in a while, to head to the polls in his stead and vote for Kerry.

“I’m not old enough to vote,” Primozich said, “but I’m old enough to make an informed decision.” The war in Iraq tipped him toward the Democrat.

For Herring, the teacher from Spokane, the dominant issue this campaign was abortion and stem cell research.

“I spent a lot of time in prayer before I voted,” she said. “I’m pro-life, so I don’t mind saying I voted for Bush.”

Around the corner and down the corridor at Silver Lake Mall, Bargas used earthier language to express his views.

Michelle Castner, owner of the Avery Trading Post, had the television in her little end-of-the-road outpost tuned to national election coverage Tuesday whether the other eight people inside – loggers and locals – wanted to watch or not.

“They’re watching it. They don’t have much choice,” Castner said with a full-bodied laugh. As the news ticker crawled with results from Eastern states, there were echoes at the Trading Post of Bargas’ Montana-honed frontier ethic. “To me it seems like we vote and vote but does our vote really count? These are all Eastern states. Idaho don’t count,” Castner said.

She has a brother in Iraq and worries about him but said she voted by absentee ballot for Bush – gun rights were a big issue – and said most of the 65 people in Avery did the same.

“I live right in the heart of hunting,” she said, “so I’m glad to see Bush up there.”

Back at Café Doma, computer group member Jim Monroe perused the menu. “Geez, all they have here is quiche.”

Jones stiffened, a plate of quiche at his elbow: “There’s nothing wrong with quiche – whether you are in North Idaho or not.”


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