March 20, 2009 in Idaho

Idaho election reform plan killed by one vote

By The Spokesman-Review
Betsy Russell photo

Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, argues for passage of HB 201, the election consolidation bill, in the Senate State Affairs Committee on Friday morning. But the bill, which previously passed the House, failed on a 5-4 vote.
(Full-size photo)

BOISE - Sweeping election reform legislation that had earlier easily passed the Idaho House was killed by one vote this morning in a Senate committee.

The bill, HB 201, sought to move all of Idaho’s elections to four specific dates, on which they’d be run by county elections offices and use standardized polling places. Backers of the sweeping legislation included Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa and Kootenai County Clerk Dan English.

House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, the bill’s sponsor, told the Senate committee, “I don’t know when I’ve had a bill of this size and this importance that has no opposition to the content of the bill. … The only sticking point is the funding.”

The bill would cost more than $2 million, but wouldn’t take effect until 2011. School districts opposed it because they’d have to pay for elections they chose to hold on the March and August election dates set out in the bill; they wouldn’t bear the cost if their elections fell on the May primary or November general election dates.

Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, urged the Senate committee to pass the bill, despite the state’s budget crunch. Elections will be held regardless, he said; the bill merely shifts some of the costs from local governments and districts to the state.

“Certainly we’re not going to propose that elections not be held,” Geddes said. “I think it is the cost of democracy. … Certainly allowing people to be better informed, better able to attend and participate in elections is a worthy cost.”

Said Lake, “This is an issue that we’ve been wrestling with for 30 years. I think it’s time - our constituents are becoming impatient. They don’t want any more oddball elections held at obscure locations.”

Under Idaho’s current system, some local governments hold elections on different dates; others hold them on the same dates as primary or general elections, but with different polling places, meaning voters have to make multiple stops on election day.

Among the many changes in the sweeping legislation was moving Idaho’s primary election a week earlier, so that it would no longer fall on the day after the Memorial Day holiday; that’s long been a source of complaints.

English has been a leading advocate of the change; already, in Kootenai County, his office contracts with many other local jurisdictions to run their elections.

The 98-page bill earlier passed the House on a 54-17 vote.

In this morning’s vote, Geddes joined Sens. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian; Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth; and Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa; in voting in favor of the bill. Voting against it were Sens. Denton Darrington, R-Declo; Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls; Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston; Jon Thorson, D-Sun Valley, who is sitting in for the ill Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum; and Kate Kelly, D-Boise.

After the vote, Lake said, “Obviously the issue’s not going away. I think the committee’s mind was made up. … They’ll each answer to their own constituents in their own way.”

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