BOISE – Idaho state Rep. Lawerence Denney already has experience shaping Idaho’s election policy.
In the Legislature, he pushed to close Idaho’s GOP primary election to anyone but registered Republicans and fought successfully for more stringent voter ID requirements.
Now, Denney, the former house speaker, hopes to lead the state’s elections as secretary of state.
His opponent, Democratic state Rep. Holli Woodings, argues Denney’s brand of partisan politics isn’t the kind of experience that would be good for running fair elections. She praises Ben Ysursa, the longtime Republican secretary of state who is retiring.
“If somebody else got into this position who was more partisan or who was part of this movement to limit people’s voices, it could look very different,” she said.
Denney says he wouldn’t make big changes in how the office is run.
“Most of the things that you are in charge of are in Idaho Code, and the only way to be more partisan is to break the law – and I certainly am not going to do that,” Denney said. “You’re pretty much controlled by what the code says.”
He added, “If you can tell me how I could be more partisan, please do.”
Ysursa has a different perspective.
“As secretary of state, you’re not merely following the dictates – you can lead,” he said. “At times our law is open to interpretation, like everything else. Nobody’s passed a perfect law; sometimes you can have a nuance or interpretation. Where there’s a doubt, you err, if you err at all, in favor of the voting franchise.”
Denney was the initial sponsor of Idaho’s voter identification law, seeking to require an official photo identification to vote. Ysursa worked with him and House Majority Leader Mike Moyle on a less-stringent version that passed the following year.
In his campaign this fall, Denney, 65, has called for bringing in new technology to scan fingerprints or signatures to identify voters at the polls. Long an opponent of mail-in voting or other changes like digital voting, Denney says he’s concerned about security in the voting process.
“You have to have the security,” he said. “I think photo ID is very little to ask.”
Woodings, 35, says the secretary of state should make it easier, not harder to vote.
“We’ve always been so fortunate and blessed to have Ben Ysursa there and (predecessor) Pete Cenarrusa there representing our rights and making sure those rights aren’t infringed,” she said.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University reports that 22 states have enacted new voting restrictions since 2010, including requiring more documentation to qualify to vote and restricting early-voting access and hours.
A farmer from Midvale and a Vietnam veteran, Denney served nine terms in the state House, including four years as majority leader and six as House speaker until in 2013 he became the first Idaho speaker to be ousted by his own caucus.
As speaker, he unilaterally killed bills and removed committee chairs who didn’t toe the line, quashed a long-sought financial disclosure law for lawmakers, pushed to close Idaho’s GOP primary election and unsuccessfully tried to fire his own appointee to the state’s bipartisan citizen redistricting commission for being too accommodating to Democrats.
He made headlines for suggesting a company fire its lobbyist and instead hire a former member of House GOP leadership to shepherd its stalled bill, after which the measure passed. He removed Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, from a committee vice-chairmanship after Anderson filed an ethics complaint against tax-protesting former Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, a Denney ally.
After his ouster as speaker, Denney became chairman of the House Resources Committee, and pushed for the state to demand to take over federal public lands.
Volunteer to lawmaker
Woodings started her public career as a volunteer helping run a successful school tax levy campaign in Boise, then became president of the North End Neighborhood Association, the city’s largest such group. Before she won a term in the House, she’d never been involved in party politics.
“Prior to running for office, I, like many others, had always identified myself as an independent,” Woodings said. “There’s a lot of Idahoans just like me out there. And when it came down to choosing, when it came down to, OK, I’m going to run for a partisan office, which party represents my values the best? I fell in line with the Democratic Party because of their focus on education, and their focus on growing small businesses and expanding the economy.”
She’s a renewable energy consultant and with her husband co-owns MetaGeek, a high-tech business that manufactures hardware and software tools for managing WiFi networks. MetaGeek has grown to employ 28 people.
Woodings said her proudest legislative accomplishment of her term was a resolution condemning bulk data collection by the National Security Agency that she co-sponsored with Republican Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene. She also sponsored legislation to allow Idahoans to register to vote at the Department of Motor Vehicles when they renew their driver’s license or car registration.
That bill didn’t advance because there wasn’t sufficient bipartisan support for it, she said.
Woodings has been traveling the state in a minivan to campaign, always with at least one of her two young children in tow.
“It’s not anything fancy, but it gets us around safely and it’s fairly easy on gas,” she said.
Making a splash
Both Denney and Woodings say they would keep the current staff in the office, a long tradition in the secretary of state’s office regardless of election turnovers. Denney incorrectly said he would have to keep most of the staffers because they’re classified state employees. Actually, all employees of an elected official serve at the pleasure of the elected official.
Denney made a splash before the May primary by bringing in the stars of the reality show “Duck Dynasty” for a campaign fundraiser. He credits the move with helping him fare better in Ada and Canyon counties to win a three-way GOP primary, defeating a more moderate candidate, Phil McGrane, whom Ysursa and county clerks across the state had endorsed.
“My philosophy is more conservative than what Ben’s has been,” Denney said. “But I don’t think that the general public would see a lot of difference in the way the office is run.”
When Denney announced his candidacy last fall, attention immediately focused on legislation he personally killed a year earlier that would have removed a costly retirement perk for longtime legislators who land high-paying state jobs. Under that provision, Denney’s retirement pension as a nine-term lawmaker – about $500 a month – would balloon to more than $3,600 a month if he followed his legislative service by serving one four-year term as secretary of state.
Denney noted that two full legislative sessions have passed since he was speaker, and no one’s re-introduced the bill to end the perk.
Ysursa said his advice for his successor is: “Never forget who you work for, and just be fair.” His office has helped make Idaho one of eight states allowing same-day voter registration at the polls, and expanded absentee voting, which has proven popular, particularly in North Idaho.
“Our aim here is to get people involved in participating – that’s the key,” Ysursa said. “There are no bureaucratic hurdles and impediments to registering and voting in Idaho.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.