BOISE – An Idaho Senate panel turned itself into the equivalent of a court on Monday, hearing arguments, weighing evidence and ultimately rejecting a challenge to the November election results in one eastern Idaho district.
The full Senate has the final vote, but the Senate State Affairs Committee’s vote was unanimous, and it will recommend that the full Senate also reject the formal contest of the election results. It’s only the third time in Idaho history that the Senate has faced such a challenge; the state constitution puts it, not the courts, in charge of weighing challenges to Senate election results.
“This is a very serious matter,” said Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg. “We’ve taken it very seriously. We’ve tried to approach it from an unbiased, nonpartisan point of view.”
Tom Katsilometes, a Pocatello Republican who lost in November to new Sen. Mark Nye, D-Pocatello, filed the challenge; both he and Nye are attorneys. Katsilometes claimed violations of the state’s Sunshine Law requirements for campaign finance reporting, along with irregularities in vote-counting and tabulation.
James Ruchti, a former Democratic state representative from Pocatello who represented Nye on Monday as his attorney before the committee, said many had asked him if Nye could get a fair shake from a Senate that’s overwhelmingly Republican. He said his answer was an unequivocal yes.
Said Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, the committee chairman, “This isn’t a partisan issue. This is trying to figure out how to do the right thing.”
The committee, which comprises seven Republicans and two Democrats, pored through piles of documents, including affidavits, testimony and Bannock County election records. They heard arguments from lawyers for both sides, and also heard from Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane and Chief Deputy Secretary of State Tim Hurst.
Hurst told the panel that vote-counting issues that Katsilometes highlighted in his challenge came up at the start of a recount in the race, but were quickly cleared up. “It was pointed out that there were resolution ballots that had not been run yet,” Hurst told the senators.
Resolution ballots are those that are processed by the tabulation machine but rejected because they can’t be read because the mark is too light or a similar concern. “The machine stops, it’s given to a resolution board, who then looks at it,” Hurst said. “They make a duplicate ballot, and those are run at the end of the day. And then those results are added into the precinct results.
“When we did the precinct results on the recount, they did not run the resolution ballots at the time,” Hurst said. Then, he said, “They ran those, and that accounted for the difference. … I don’t remember if it was exactly the same; it was not more than one or two votes.”
Kahle Becker, attorney for Katsilometes, contended that Nye violated Idaho’s Sunshine Law by collecting nine campaign contributions before he formally announced that he’d be running for the Idaho Senate, rather than the House; he previously served in the House. But Ruchti said Nye properly reported all of the donations, which totaled $1,412.50.
He said what Katsilometes was seeking – to have the Senate set aside the election results – was “extraordinary,” and there was good reason why the Senate didn’t do that in the two previous instances, in 1981 and 1945.
“I think all districts in the state would be extremely alarmed that the government would come in and essentially undo what the people had done,” Ruchti said.
Hill said, “I just don’t think any of these issues are issues sufficient enough, or even if they even exist … to lead us to a new election or to any other conclusion.”
Katsilometes, who shares a name with a longtime Democratic county commissioner and current state tax commissioner from the county, earlier unsuccessfully challenged a city election result in Pocatello.
In November, Nye won the seat with 48.1 percent of the vote. Katsilometes got 44.9 percent of the vote and independent Sierra “Idaho Lorax” Carta took 7 percent.
After the committee’s decision on Monday, Nye said, “I’m very relieved. I’m pleased to be elected and representing my people and my state. … I try to meet the highest standards.”
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