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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho Secretary of State Ysursa to retire after 40-year career

Ben Ysursa, at the Idaho state capitol (Betsy Russell)
BOISE - After 40 years in state government, Ben Ysursa has some strong opinions about how things ought to work in Idaho – and how, on occasion, they have. For example, when both of the state’s political parties came together, working side by side, they successfully passed a ballot measure to create the College of Western Idaho, now the state’s fastest-growing community college. “It was just gratifying to see it,” Ysursa said. “We need to get a cause like that again, that we can all agree on and go forward with. … It was a good joint effort to see how things can work when politics is out of it, so to speak.” Another example he points to is election-day voter registration. Idaho’s one of just eight states that allows voters to register at the polls on Election Day. The reason: When Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act in 1994, it required states to follow an array of new federal rules about voter registration, including keeping voters on the rolls for eight years even if they don’t vote. “Idaho was going to have some real out-of-date lists and things of that nature,” Ysursa said. But Ysursa, an attorney and then chief deputy secretary of state, discovered that if Idaho enacted election-day registration, it’d be exempt from all the other rules. “It was: Do we have a federal mandate, or do we want to run our own elections?” Ysursa recalled. Both parties liked the idea, he said. “Both Republicans and Democrats thought election-day registration was a good idea, was going to get more of their folks registered. Our office and the clerks saw it as a way of making Idaho run Idaho elections, and not have the federal intrusion.” It’s been in effect ever since. The Legislature passed the bill with just one “no” vote – from a representative who objected that the change didn’t go far enough, because it applied only to state elections, not local ones. “We did get it extended to municipal elections the next year,” Ysursa said. Ysursa’s now retiring after 12 years as Idaho’s Secretary of State, the state’s chief elections officer, lands commissioner, and overseer of official state and commercial records. He also worked as a deputy to the late former Secretary of State Pete Cenarrussa for 28 years. “I had a great mentor in Pete,” Ysursa said. “He was noted as a fair guy.” Both men are Basques, one of Idaho’s most celebrated ethnic minorities. When Ysursa was a Gonzaga University graduate with a freshly minted law degree from St. Louis University, he returned to Idaho and went to work as the election attorney in Cenarrussa’s office. “I was going to work a couple of years and then go out and make my fortune in private practice,” Ysursa said. “Well, 40 years later, I never made a fortune. I met my wife. It’s been a good run.” Ysursa’s wife, Penny, started in the office a month after he did, working as the elections secretary. They remember dates based on Idaho election milestones. For example, in 1978, as they were planning their wedding and in the midst of trying to figure out plans for a reception at Boise’s Basque Center, Ysursa got a call from Don Chance, the original sponsor of Idaho’s notorious, tax-limiting One Percent Initiative. It passed in 1978; that makes it easy for Ysursa to remember which year he got married. Just after the two first started work in 1974, petitions were delivered to the Secretary of State’s office for the successful Sunshine Law initiative, which brought Idaho campaign finance disclosure and lobbyist registration and disclosure. “That was the beginning of me knowing her,” Ysursa said. “We were basically entwined with the Sunshine Law.” The initiative passed with a 78 percent yes vote, and Ysursa would go on to oversee the public-disclosure system it created. “Nov. 27, 1974, it went into effect and we immediately were starting to register lobbyists,” he recalled. “It was quite a deal. We should have hired more people.” Within a year, there was an attempt to amend the new law to require disclosure of donors only after elections, not before. “Cooler heads prevailed,” Ysursa said. “They kinda said, ’78 percent of the people thought it was a good idea, maybe we shouldn’t change it.’” Ysursa says Cenarrussa was his model for how to run the office, and the inspiration for his campaign slogan: “Fairness, efficiency and service.” The two had more in common than they originally realized. Neither knew it at first, but Cenarrussa’s parents and Ysursa’s grandmother’s sister had had a joint wedding ceremony together many years earlier. “He loved to fly, so I’d fly with him,” Ysursa recalled. Once, on a trip to Kamiah, he told Cenarrussa he had a cold and was having problems with his ears. “He said, ‘Well, I’ll fly low,” Ysursa said. “We go over the Seven Devils – I could’ve reached out and got a scoop of snow.” Ysursa said he learned from Cennarrusa that his office is a public records office, and it needs openness, fairness, competence and accountability. “As much information as we have, it’s useless unless we get it to the public,” he said. As for Idaho’s election system, he said, “We’ve got a good, safe, secure system and we need to work on ways of getting people to vote.” Ysursa says his biggest regret is how voter participation in Idaho has dropped over the years; he thinks education, starting early in the schools, is part of the answer. Kids need to get a real sense of what distinguishes the United States, he said: “Our government, as dysfunctional as it is. Of course, everything comes down to the freedoms we enjoy. … The fact we can agree to disagree, the freedom of the press and the others – it’s something you don’t see in a lot of countries.” He quotes Henry Clay, the early U.S. senator and secretary of state: Government is a trust, and elected officials are trustees. “We have a fiduciary duty to do our best for the people of the state of Idaho who elected us.” Ysursa’s a Republican, but he says hyper-partisanship does the state little good. “Partisan vitriol is destroying our system,” he said. “The vitriol I see here, of course, is not just between R’s and D’s, but within my own party,” which heavily dominates Idaho elected offices. “I affectionately refer to it as our circular firing squad.” Ysursa said, “We need to rebuild trust in our government by the manner in which we conduct the business of government, and our willingness to embrace fairness, openness, accountability, cooperation, competence and honesty.”