BOISE – Secretary of State Lawerence Denney says he has a new appreciation for county clerks and election staff after spending two days as a poll worker in North Idaho.
“There was an incredible amount of stress at times,” Denney said. “I think that helped me get a better feel for what goes on.”
It was Denney’s first time serving as a poll worker, and the first time in recent history that an Idaho secretary of state spent Election Day at the polls rather than inside his office.
Denney served in the state House for nearly two decades, including three terms as speaker. Before Tuesday, he didn’t have much experience working on a large-scale ballot count. The top election chief is from Washington County, where poll workers still count paper ballots by hand.
Yet Denney jumped at the chance when Nez Perce County Clerk Patty Weeks earlier this year invited the Republican to learn firsthand how election staffers work the polls and count ballots.
To make the best policy decisions, Weeks said, it’s important for any secretary of state to understand the nuances and challenges staffers face on Election Day.
On Monday, Denney was sworn in with other poll workers after being warned by Weeks to wear plenty of layers, bring a healthy stash of snacks and be rested. He was assigned to spend Tuesday working in the county’s largest precinct, helping accept completed ballots and announcing the names of the residents who voted.
Denney said he kept in touch with his staff throughout the day despite being five hours away and in a different time zone. And when he got a phone call alerting him that a last-minute lawsuit was filed against him on Election Day, Denney says he told his chief deputy to handle it.
The Idaho Democratic Party filed a lawsuit demanding that five polls in the state’s most populous county remain open later because election officials failed to inform voters that they were moved to a new location. A federal judge later agreed to keep them open one hour later.
“It was probably easier to be away from the office,” Denney said.
He added only a handful of voters recognized him as the state’s top election chief. Yet when the ballot-counting machine broke after polls closed, Denney joked that the county likely got speedier repair service because he was able to throw out his title.
“They flew someone out from Missoula right away,” Denney said with a laugh. “That’s also when stress got high.”
Overall, Denney said he would happily spend Election Day working in another county if asked. But he said his experience likely won’t influence any policy changes he’s expecting to propose during the 2017 legislative session.
Denney said he’s focused on recommending several revisions to campaign finance law, including raising the fine from $250 to $2,500 for violations and ensuring campaign finance reports are provided online in a searchable format.
The ideas are based on proposals from an initiative that received too few signatures to make the general election ballot.
“My feeling has always been there’s a need for more transparency,” Denney said. “I didn’t agree with everything in the initiative, but I do think it had some good ideas.”
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