Idaho Vote By Mail drops push to place issue on ballot

BOISE – Sponsors of an initiative to make it easier for Idahoans to vote by mail have dropped their bid to get the measure on the ballot in 2012.

“We needed 51,000 signatures, and I could just tell from the way we were going that we weren’t going to meet the mark,” said Larry Grant, a former Democratic congressional candidate from Fruitland, Idaho, who led the effort. “I didn’t want people working on it for another couple months knowing we weren’t going to make it.”

Meanwhile, Idaho House GOP leaders are mulling further limiting, rather than expanding, mail-in or absentee voting in the state.

Idaho Vote By Mail had pledged to use volunteer signature gatherers for its initiative drive, rather than paid ones. But the group has gathered fewer than 10,000 signatures, although it’s been working at it for more than a year and had volunteers out at county fairs, farmers markets and the like.

The deadline is February.

“Most folks I believe are supportive of it, but actually getting volunteers to go gather signatures and do the necessary work is a little more difficult,” Grant said.

Interest in voting by mail in Idaho has been growing over the years, with 29.5 percent of Idaho’s votes cast by absentee ballot in 2008. In Kootenai County it was 35.4 percent and in Ada County, the state’s largest population center, 43.5 percent. In tiny Teton County, absentee voting hit 50.8 percent in 2008.

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.

At least four states, including Washington, allow voters to file no-excuses, permanent absentee ballot requests, but in Idaho, voters have to file a new request every election. The initiative would have allowed permanent absentee ballot requests.

The Idaho Legislature has been hostile to allowing more mail-in voting, repeatedly killing bills in committee. Grant said he’s hearing that House GOP leaders may try to restrict absentee voting further next year, possibly preventing it unless people give a valid excuse, such as that they’ll be out of town.

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, confirmed that “there are several legislators talking about trying to do something along that line.”

Moyle, author of a new law that requires Idaho voters to show photo ID at the polls, said he’s concerned that federal laws may also require ID for absentee voting. “We may be breaking a law now,” he said.

Idaho’s county clerks, who run elections, have been supportive of more mail-in voting, as has Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, a Republican and the state’s chief election official.

“Two years ago we tried to get permanent absentee voting through the House State Affairs Committee,” Ysursa said. “We were not successful.”

Grant said his hope was that the excitement of an election year would generate volunteers for the Vote By Mail initiative effort, but instead, he found that volunteers were busy working for candidates. “We may revive it next cycle,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”

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