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Idaho voter participation hits record low

Idaho's state Board of Canvassers certifies the official results Wednesday from the Nov. 4 election. At center is Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa; at left is state Controller Brandon Woolf. (Betsy Russell)
Idaho's state Board of Canvassers certifies the official results Wednesday from the Nov. 4 election. At center is Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa; at left is state Controller Brandon Woolf. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE – As Idaho certified its official election results today, a troubling distinction emerged: This year’s election was the first time ever that less than 40 percent of Idaho’s voting-age population cast ballots in a general election.

“Frankly, it was disappointing,” said Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. “We broke through a barrier that we didn’t want to break through.”

The previous low – 40.21 percent of the voting age population – came in the last mid-term election in 2010, as Idaho has continued to see declining voter participation, a trend that’s been steady since 1980.

Idaho’s not alone – Ysursa said the national average turnout this year, in percent of voting-age population, was 37 percent. “It’s abysmal,” he said, “and we need to turn it around.”

Voter turnout was low in Washington as well, largely due to a lack of competitive races at the top of the ticket. But voter turnout in Washington has generally been on the upswing in recent years, especially since the advent of voting by mail. Washington dipped below 40 percent of its voting-age population in mid-term elections in both 1978 and 1990, but it hasn’t happened since. “Generally, it’s robust,” said David Ammons, spokesman for the Washington Secretary of State’s office.

Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor who heads the United States Elections Project, said turnout lagged across the country in states where there weren’t competitive races at the top of the ticket, like hot races for U.S. Senate seats. “That said, Idaho usually does better than other states that might have lack of competition,” he said. One factor that tends to work in Idaho’s favor is that it’s one of just eight states that allows voters to register at the polls on Election Day.

“To be a low, low turnout affair is a bit unusual,” he said.

Final turnout figures showed that 56.1 percent of Idaho’s registered voters participated in the election. The number of voters registered was roughly equal to that of the last mid-term election in 2010, but there were 12,441 fewer ballots cast.

Just 37.59 percent of Idaho’s voting-age population voted in the Nov. 4 election.

In Washington, 53.5 percent of registered voters cast ballot. The state is still calculating the percentage of the voting-age population, but early estimates put it at roughly 40 percent. In Washington’s last mid-term election in 2010, 72 percent of registered voters cast ballots, which was 50 percent of the voting-age population.

Ysursa, who is retiring this year after four decades in the Idaho Secretary of State’s office – the last 12 in the top post – said, “We need to do a better job of pressing the importance of voting – the fact that it’s a civic duty, a civic responsibility.” He said, “I think we have to start early.”

Ysursa has led efforts to make voting easier in Idaho, from election-day registration to no-excuse absentee voting and early voting. He’s led moves to let 17-year-olds serve as poll workers, and runs a statewide mock election for high school government classes.

“And yet our voting participation has gone down,” he said. “We’re building a cycle of non-voting. We’ve got to reverse that trend. I don’t know what the magic answer is – I’ve been trying for 40 years.”

He said, “We do our job of getting the information out there and making it easy to participate. But the voter has a responsibility to take all that in and cast an informed vote.”

Kootenai County had the fourth-lowest turnout in the state in November, at 52.1 percent of registered voters.

Idaho’s voter turnout rises in presidential years, and hit 74 percent of registered voters – 57.6 percent of the voting-age population – in 2012. But it’s still declining overall. In 1980, 69 percent of the voting-age population cast ballots, which was 77 percent of registered voters. In 1960, 83.3 percent of Idaho’s registered voters turned out, a whopping 80 percent of the voting-age population.