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Eye on Boise: Decline in voting has Idaho secretary of state ‘troubled’

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa is predicting a 58 percent turnout in Tuesday’s general election – that’s 58 percent of registered voters, and is equal to roughly 39 to 40 percent of Idaho’s voting-age population.

“It’s not something to write home about,” he said. “I am disturbed, troubled and concerned about the decline in voter participation.”

Ysursa said Idaho’s voter turnout has been on a steady decline since the record 1980 election in which Steve Symms defeated Idaho Sen. Frank Church. That trend has continued even though Idaho has removed many obstacles to voting – it’s one of just eight states with Election Day registration at the polls, and it now offers no-excuse absentee voting and early voting.

“What is the answer to increasing voter turnout?” Ysursa asked. “I’ve been trying to figure that out for 40 years. … I do know that the process needs to be inclusive and not exclusive.”

Ysursa’s prediction would match the turnout in the last general election in Idaho in a nonpresidential year, 2010, and is slightly lower than the previous nonpresidential general election in 2006, which drew 60 percent of registered voters. More Idahoans tend to turn out in presidential election years; the 2012 election drew 74 percent, and 2008 saw 77 percent.

Campaign stop at school

When the Idaho GOP campaign bus tour rolled into Gooding on Oct. 24, the students and staff at North Valley Academy Public Charter School were ready. The entire student body, in the colorful uniforms that are required at the patriotism-themed charter school, assembled on the lawn in front of the school, the school string orchestra played, and the kids sang the national anthem.

According to an Idaho Republican Party Facebook post, campaign signs for the various Republican candidates were planted in the lawn along the sidewalk at the front of the school for the half-hour event. “The Idaho GOP Bus Tour received a warm welcome at North Valley Academy in Gooding. Their student band played for us and did an amazing job! We’re on our way to Wendell!” the party announced in a Facebook post.

“I don’t believe it was a campaign event,” said the school’s board chairwoman and founder, Deby Infanger. “For us it was a visit from the governor.”

She added, “It was outside. And he does what governors do, he supports public education, and I think it was very appropriate to thank him and sing the national anthem with him.”

Infanger said she was out of town and didn’t attend the event, but said, “We gave the governor a plaque and thanked him for his support of education.”

The event took place during the school day, from 1:30 to 2 p.m. on a Friday. But the state Board of Education’s Code of Ethics for Idaho Professional Educators strictly forbids using schools “for the promotion of political candidates or for political activities,” something state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna reminded educators across the state about in a 2011 memo.

Luna warned against “allowing the use of the school to further political agendas in conjunction with any school activity or event.” Violations could mean suspension of educators’ professional certifications and they could no longer be employed in Idaho schools, he said.

Brady Moore, spokesman for Luna, said Friday that the state’s Professional Standards Commission can neither confirm nor deny whether it is looking into the incident.

David Johnston, executive director of the Idaho Republican Party, said he was on the bus tour.

“It was a great stop,” he said. “The pictures, I think, said it all. It was a great crowd, a good turnout. We rolled up there and everybody was out on the front lawn, and the band did a great job on their performance.” 

Johnston said he wasn’t aware that the academy was a public school. “We didn’t stop at any other schools,” he said.

Balukoff donated to rival

Democratic candidate for governor A.J. Balukoff, who is challenging GOP Gov. Butch Otter, has been clear that he was an independent before he launched his run for office, and in the past supported candidates from both parties. A check of his past contributions in federal campaigns confirms that, showing he donated to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns in 2007 and 2012, and gave to an array of Idaho Republican and Democratic candidates over the years, from Larry Craig to Shirley Ringo.

Perhaps most interesting of all was this donation: In 2004, Balukoff donated $250 to a GOP candidate for Congress – Butch Otter. Mike Lanza, Balukoff’s campaign spokesman, said, “He once believed that Butch Otter would deliver on his promises. He no longer believes that.”

Political reporter Betsy Z. Russell can be reached at betsyr@spokesman.com, (208) 336-2854.