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Election officials back easing vote-by-mail

BOISE – County election officials are touting proposals for the 2008 Legislature to increase the number of Idaho residents who vote by mail, which they say will boost turnout, cut costs and reduce lines at polls.

The measures, backed by the Idaho Association of Recorders and Clerks, would let registered voters opt for permanent absentee ballots and allow counties to adopt vote-by-mail for elections where ballot measures or issues, but not candidates, are at stake.

The proposals stop short of a plan killed earlier this year by lawmakers, including House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, that would have allowed a broader vote-by-mail system similar to what’s in place in Oregon and Washington. Foes raised the specter of voter fraud, confidentiality violations and constitutional issues.

Election officials hope this latest push is modest enough to pass.

“If everybody would look at the statistics, absentee voting is increasing all the time,” said Sharon Widner, the clerk in Washington County and a proponent of the changes. “People don’t want to stand in line, they want to vote absentee.”

The 2008 session starts in January.

Just four states – Oregon, Washington, California and Colorado – now offer permanent absentee voting, according to the Minneapolis-based Center for Civic Participation. Idaho is among 24 states with some form of absentee voting, while 22 others require voters to physically go to the polls.

Currently, Idaho voters must request an absentee ballot before each election, or up to four times annually.

In Kootenai County, about 26 percent of voters opt for absentee ballots.

Dan English, the top election official there, said it’s likely even more voters would join them if they didn’t face the hassle of requesting an absentee ballot every election.

“As much as anything, it’s a response to demand from voters themselves,” English told the Associated Press in an interview from his office in Coeur d’Alene. “I really don’t have a good answer for them when voters ask, ‘Why should I have to fill this out every time?’ In my book, they should be able to.”

If more voters could make their choices from home, he said, turnout that’s sunk well below 30 percent statewide for some elections would increase.

Still, changes in Idaho election policy come slowly, in part because some incumbents are wary of upsetting a system that put them in office.

In February, Denney and Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona and chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, succeeded in stalling legislation to allow Idaho’s 44 counties to adopt a vote-by-mail system. The plan had cleared Loertscher’s committee, but they killed it, then prevented it from getting a renewed hearing.

Denney, who hasn’t seen the clerks’ latest proposals, said allowing permanent absentee ballots may be a more palatable alternative than an outright vote-by-mail system.

Still, concerns persist over fraud and voter confidentiality issues that could accompany a vote-by-mail system, he said. That resistance could be a major hurdle in the election officials’ latest bid to persuade lawmakers to approve vote-by-mail for noncandidate elections.

“The county officials have a comfort level with it,” Denney said. “I don’t think the Legislature has.”


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