As the presidential candidates spar, interest in the election in Idaho has skyrocketed, despite a lack of competitive state races and years of one-party dominance.
Counties across the state are reporting big increases in voter registrations, along with record numbers of absentee ballot requests.
“There’s an intense interest,” said Kootenai County Clerk Dan English. “Many, many groups out there are doing voter registration drives, even independently of the parties. Our number of registered voters is growing almost 400 to 500 a week.”
Ada County Elections Supervisor Ilene Goff said voter registration there already has topped 165,000 – well ahead of the 156,346 registered voters for the last presidential election in 2000.
“We’re getting anywhere between 200 and 300 a day,” she said.
She’s seeing people of all ages, many registering for the first time. “There’s a lot of new voters, compared to usual,” Goff said. “They just say, ‘I’m going to vote, I’ve never voted before and I’m going to vote.’ “
Boise State University political scientist Gary Moncrief, who studies elections, said there are several factors sparking interest among voters. The biggest, he said, “is that the two parties are probably as far apart ideologically as they’ve been in our generation, or maybe more than a generation … What you have is an election that has really divided the electorate, even in Idaho, which we know is a state that traditionally votes Republican.
“Historically, people tend to talk about American parties as being not very different from each other,” he said. “I think that’s generally true, but I think ideologically they’re a lot farther apart than they’ve been right now. So, people see the outcome as being a lot more meaningful.”
Kootenai County has taken in 1,166 new voter registration cards just since Sept. 1 – and that’s not counting people who have just moved within the county.
Randi Flaherty, a deputy recorder in Idaho’s Bonner County, said she’s been seeing lots of 18-year-olds eager to cast their first vote.
“We’ve had a ton of voter registration,” she said. “We have a lot of absentees going out to the colleges.”
“I think with everything that’s going on in the world, everybody’s kind of taking more of an interest in voting this year,” Flaherty said.
Elsie Power, jury commissioner and voter registration clerk for Shoshone County, agreed. “Usually we have some new people, but not like we’ve had for this one,” she said.
Churches big and small are heavily involved in registration drives around the state this year, election officials said, along with political parties, candidates and civic groups.
“This year, they (churches) are asking me for thousands of cards, some of ‘em,” said Kootenai County elections supervisor Deedie Beard.
Moncrief said in addition to the big differences between the two major parties’ presidential candidates, interest in voting has been boosted by a sense of duty in light of the tumultuous events the nation has experienced in the last four years, from the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the war in Iraq. Plus, he said, efforts to persuade young people to vote may be starting to pay off.
“There’s been a lot more talk about civic education and voting, particularly in the last three or four years at the high school level, and I think that’s starting to bear some fruit,” Moncrief said.
It remains to be seen, of course, whether a flurry of registrations actually translates into higher turnout. Since 1976, the percentage of registered voters turning up at the polls in Idaho has varied from a low of 68 percent that year to a high of 80 percent in 1980.
Nancy Eitreim, president of Seattle’s League of Women Voters, blames the press for not prodding people more.
“For a number of years, voting and registering was a huge thing in the media,” she said. “Now you may get some coverage the night before the voting registration deadline, and it doesn’t even tell people where to go.”
Beard said people who are showing up to register or get an absentee ballot aren’t citing any specific issue. “They just seem to be determined to vote in this election,” she said. “It’s like, ‘I’m gonna have my say in this one.’ “
Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said that’s a good thing. “The presidential election … is firing up the political arena, and we’re getting a lot of activity already,” he said. “We think it’s a good, positive aspect to get more registrations and more votes. That’s what this democracy is all about.”