Idaho state leaders remain dubious of switching to a vote-by-mail system for elections, as Washington and Oregon have done. But voters in Idaho are growing more comfortable with the concept of voting at their own pace, away from the polls, as a steadily increasing share of them embrace absentee voting.
In the general election four years ago, 32 percent of the votes cast in Kootenai County were by absentee ballot. The county elections office again is seeing a surge of requests to vote that way in this presidential election.
“Our first mail-out this time was a record,” said Carrie Phillips, the county’s elections manager.
That initial batch last month contained 6,670 absentee ballots, or more than three times the first batch sent out for the November 2012 election.
Since Sept. 21, the county has mailed about 8,400 ballots, which represents 11 percent of registered voters. On average, 200 more ballots go in the mail each day – more than twice the rate as in 2012. Almost 350 were mailed out Thursday alone.
Another wave of early voting will begin Oct. 17 and run each weekday for three weeks, when Kootenai County voters can go to the elections office, request a ballot and vote on the spot. More than 7,100 voters did that in the last presidential election.
Elections officials also see a wave of new voters leading up to the Nov. 8 election. Since July 21, about 5,200 voters have registered in Kootenai County – the equivalent of 7 percent of the electorate.
“This one I think will break records all over the place, because people have high emotions,” Phillips said. “Some are excited, some are not. There’s just so much going on that I feel the numbers are going to be really high.“
To the north, Bonner County Clerk Michael Rosedale projects this election will bring the highest voter turnout in county history.
“It’s going to be off the chart for this one. It’s going to set the record, I’m sure,” Rosedale said.
He added, “At the rate our absentee ballot requests are coming in, it’s definitely looking to be true.”
A quarter to a third of the voters will cast absentee ballots, he predicted. “It’ll be huge.”
Candidates for county sheriff, prosecuting attorney and two of the three seats on the Board of Commissioners all are unopposed on the November ballot. It’s the presidential showdown that really has voters fired up, Rosedale said.
“Obviously we have an extremely polarizing election year,” he said. “A lot of people are voting for their favorite candidate. A lot of people are voting against their most hated possibility. It’s a love-hate vote for sure.”
The voting base in Bonner County has grown by over 10 percent in just the past couple of months, Rosedale said.
The Idaho Legislature has adamantly opposed vote-by-mail, and among the opponents is former House Speaker Lawerence Denney, who is now secretary of state overseeing state elections. When he launched his campaign for that office three years ago, Denney said, “Sure, vote by mail is easier and it’s cheaper, but we cannot protect the integrity of the ballot.”
With the way ballots are tracked today, it’s rare to have any indication of voter fraud, local elections officials say.
Rosedale said he favors moving toward mail-only voting in Idaho. He believes it would be easier and allow for faster results to be posted, eliminate the need to train and supervise poll workers, and would cut down on voter fraud.
“I think that would be fantastic,” he said. “If the votes by mail count just as much and are deemed perfectly safe, then what’s the downside? They’re either safe and valid or they’re not.”
The absentee ballot, originally meant to accommodate voters away from home on Election Day, appeals today to a broad swath of the electorate: those who enjoy the convenience, the elderly and homebound, and people worried about long lines or bad weather come Election Day.
And some new residents are accustomed to full mail voting or permanent absentee options from living elsewhere.
“People that move here, they’re expecting it. They think Idaho is the same way,” Phillips said.
As it is now, Idaho effectively has a hybrid system of poll elections with a growing following of absentee ballot voters.
“That is where the cost does increase, when the numbers are so high for absentee,” Phillips said.
In 2012, she needed 18 additional temp workers to process absentee ballots on Election Day. That’s on top of a small army deployed to scores of polling places. This November, Phillips will place five to seven workers at each precinct, or 450 to 500 people in all. Each is paid at least $125 for what is expected to be a 14-hour shift.
The county also will conduct 10 two-hour poll training sessions leading up to the election.
The Republican-dominated Legislature in Idaho has given no indication it will examine a vote-by-mail system anytime soon.
“I imagine people will be talking about it, though, because it does appear to work, in some states anyway, very well,” said Jim Mairs, who coordinates efforts in the secretary of state’s office to update elections procedures.