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Write-in challenges Idaho Rep. Hart

A Hayden, Idaho businessman has filed to run as a write-in candidate against Idaho Rep. Phil Hart, saying Hart’s tax woes prompted him to jump into the race against a fellow conservative.

“We all pay our taxes, and my feeling is what he did was wrong,” Howard Griffiths said of Hart. “There’s no justification for it. If we all took that attitude, and the way Washington’s printing money, this country wouldn’t last three minutes if none of us paid our taxes.”

Hart is the target of an ethics investigation in the Idaho House; in late July, a special House Ethics Committee cleared him, on a 4-3 party-line vote, of conflict-of-interest charges for voting on and sponsoring tax legislation while he was waging his own fight against back state and federal income taxes. He still faces a pending charge of abuse of legislative privilege, for repeatedly citing the constitutional privilege against arrest or civil process during legislative sessions to win delays in his state and federal income tax cases.

Other than the write-in challenge, Hart, R-Athol, is unopposed in his bid for a fourth House term in November. A civil engineer, he’s a tax protester who stopped filing state and federal income tax returns in 1996 while he pressed an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging the federal income tax as unconstitutional, a point he expounded on in a book he authored. Now, though Hart has resumed filing returns, public records show he owes nearly $700,000 in back state and federal income taxes, penalties and interest.

Griffiths, 62, sold his Hayden business, Clean Check Inc., three years ago; it sold an extendable backwater valve for sewer systems that he patented. He also worked as a Kootenai County marine sheriff’s deputy in the summer of 2003, and was the city of Rathdrum’s public works director from 1989 to 1994.

“I’ve never been in politics, but I guess I’m jumping in,” Griffiths said. He’s a Fox News fan who said he has “conservative principles,” and wants to “get back to the principles this country was founded on.”

He’s also a Navy veteran who’s worked as a firefighter and in city public works in Fruitland, Idaho; he attends Real Life Ministries evangelical church in Post Falls, though he said he’s not a very active member.

Griffiths said he’s frustrated with politicians like Hart. “I just feel that the problem with these guys is they start forgetting who they work for, they think they’re above the law,” Griffiths said. “I’m just going to give ‘em a choice - if they want the same old song, that’s their choice. … The feedback I’m getting is they don’t, because I’m being encouraged to pursue this.”

Successful write-in campaigns are rare in Idaho general elections, but it has happened. Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said the most famous example was state Rep. Helen McKinney, who lost her re-election bid in a GOP primary in Lemhi County in the late 1960s, then waged a write-in campaign in the general election. “She turned around and ran and won in the general,” he said.

Ysursa also recalled that in the 1980s, a Caldwell mayor left town to go fishing well before the election, and while he was gone, “a guy declared write-in against him and beat him.” Pete Cowles, the write-in candidate, went on to serve as mayor of Caldwell for four years.

“It’s highly unlikely and highly improbable, but it has happened,” Ysursa said.

He noted that the hurdles for write-in candidates have grown a bit with modern optical-scan ballots, as opposed to the old paper ballots. The reason: Voters must not only write in the candidate’s name, but must also fill in the write-in oval next to where they write the name. If they don’t do both, the vote doesn’t count.

“When you have to do something extra, it’s difficult,” Ysursa said. “The obvious term is it’s a long shot.”


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