BOISE – After 40 years in state government, Ben Ysursa has 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, 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 is one of just eight states that allow 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.
But Ysursa, an attorney and then-chief deputy secretary of state, discovered that if Idaho enacted Election Day registration, it would 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.
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 Cenarrusa 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 Cenarrusa’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.
Ysursa says Cenarrusa was his model for how to run the office, and the inspiration for his campaign slogan: “Fairness, efficiency and service.”
Ysursa said he learned from Cenarrusa 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 said 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.
Ysursa’s a Republican, but he said 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.”
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