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Mail ballot drive OK’d

Permanent absentee status is goal in 2012

BOISE – Backers of a voter initiative to let Idahoans put in permanent absentee ballot requests, rather than having to file a new request every election, are trying something unorthodox: Instead of shooting for the 2010 election, they want their measure on the ballot in 2012.

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said it’s the first time he’s seen such a long timeline for an initiative, but the plan’s legal. “This is kind of a different take on it,” he said. “But they’re also looking at two years of county fairs, things like that.”

Larry Grant, a former Democratic congressional candidate and the head of Idaho Vote by Mail, said, “It will be easier to gather signatures when people are more involved in an election year. We just felt that we wanted all of 2010 to get those signatures.”

It will take at least 51,712 signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot, but Grant said that shouldn’t be hard to do before February 2011. He plans to rely on volunteer signature-gatherers, rather than paid workers.

Idaho’s fastest-ever qualification of an initiative was in 2006, when activist Laird Maxwell qualified his property rights initiative for the ballot in less than 30 days, using paid signature-gatherers. “Of course, they were well-funded,” Ysursa said. The measure was defeated at the polls.

Last week, the Idaho attorney general’s office issued the ballot titles for the measure and cleared it for signature-gathering to begin.

At least four states, including Washington, allow voters to file no-excuses, permanent absentee ballot requests, and voting by mail has been gaining popularity both nationwide and in Idaho. In the 2008 election, 29.5 percent of Idaho’s votes were cast by absentee ballot, and the numbers were higher in Kootenai County (35.4 percent) and Ada County (43.5 percent), the largest population center.

Ada County sent absentee ballot requests to every voter that year, after the previous election resulted in long lines, angry voters and polls that had to stay open long after closing time to accommodate everyone.

“It was successful in reducing the lines and the stress on Election Day, and that was a very positive aspect of it,” Ysursa said.

The state’s highest percentage of absentee voting came in rural Teton County, which hit 50.8 percent in 2008.

Both Ysursa and Idaho’s county clerks have been supportive of more mail-in voting, or at least allowing voters to choose permanent absentee ballot status. But the Legislature has been hostile to the idea, with bills along those lines repeatedly killed in the House before they reached floor votes.

“Sometimes failed legislation leads to initiatives,” Ysursa said, noting that that’s how Idaho got its Sunshine Law in 1974. The Legislature rejected campaign finance disclosure and lobbyist registration, citizen groups organized a voter initiative, and voters enacted those measures, with 78 percent of the vote.