BOISE – For many years, Idaho lawmakers have staunchly resisted legislative proposals to join neighbors Oregon and Washington in holding all-mail-in elections, despite evidence that they increase voter turnout.
A chief opponent for many of those years was Lawerence Denney, a Republican who served as speaker of the House from 2006 to 2012 and now is Idaho’s second-term Secretary of State – in charge of overseeing elections.
Denney now says his thinking has evolved. He’s no longer focused on the chief concern he raised back then, that mail-in voting would lead to increased voter fraud.
“Sitting on this side of it, I don’t think that’s as big a problem,” Denney told the Idaho Press, “particularly with our absentee system, where you actually have to request a ballot and you’ve checked that you are registered, and then when your ballot comes back in your signature is verified. So I think there are checks and balances to make our absentees safe, and pretty fraud-proof.
“Sitting on this side of it and looking at what fraud there is, since I’ve been secretary I think we’ve prosecuted maybe a half a dozen cases. That’s not very many.”
But Denney still doesn’t favor moving permanently to all-mail-in voting in Idaho – and wants the state to open polling places for the November election.
Idahoans don’t want the change, he said. “I think there’s still a considerable number of people who, I don’t say that it’s necessarily conservative, I would say traditional: They like to go to the polls to cast their votes,” he said. “I’m still not in favor of going to a total all-mail-in election.”
The record 429,000 Idahoans who requested ballots for this spring’s primary, however, provide some evidence that Idahoans did like the system. The primary saw a record turnout: Of those 429,000 requests, 328,499 voters completed and returned their ballots by the June 2 deadline, for a 38.5% turnout of registered voters, the highest percentage in an Idaho primary since 1980, which was 41.34%.
Last week, when Gov. Brad Little and Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin held a statewide call-in on coronavirus concerns with the Idaho AARP, a caller named Sharon raised exactly that question.
“I have a concern with of course the virus not being done come election time,” she said. “Will Idaho still have the vote-by-mail so that seniors who have health problems, like myself, don’t have to go down and be in closed rooms with all the poll people? … Will we still be able to vote by mail so that us seniors with problems can also vote?”
Little responded that Idaho voters for years have had the option of requesting absentee ballots to vote by mail if they so choose, and that will still be the case for the November election.
McGeachin expressed some skepticism that Idahoans want to switch to all-mail elections, but said of the primary, “I just applaud Idahoans. It may not have been their preferred choice of voting, but we had a great turnout.”
“I don’t think that the Legislature is ready to go there,” Denney said.
Nationally, President Trump has suggested that mail-in voting benefits Democrats, though studies have found no particular benefit for either party. According to the MIT Election Lab, vote-by-mail “increases turnout modestly in midterm and presidential elections but may increase turnout more in primaries, local elections, and special elections. This modest increase likely comes in two ways: By bringing marginal voters into the electorate and by retaining voters who might otherwise drop out of the electorate.”
A May 2020 study by the Democracy and Polarization Lab at Stanford University concluded, “Universal vote-by-mail has no impact on partisan turnout or vote share,” but does “modestly” increase overall turnout.
Denney said he’s heard a theory “that some people put out there” that the difference between Idaho’s ballot requests for the primary, 429,000, and the 328,499 ballots actually returned and counted means that those ballots were “lost,” or “that there were 100,000 that could’ve been voting by somebody else or there could’ve been fraud.”
That figure, however, represents a 77% return on the requested ballots, which is in line with what Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane said before the election is the typical return rate for primary absentee ballot requests in Idaho, which he said typically runs around 80%.
“I think it will be a while before the Legislature would agree to an all-mail ballot, and perhaps by the time they do agree to that, all their fears will be eliminated,” Denney said.
He added that some of his certainly have.
“Seeing the beast from the inside changes your perspective somewhat,” he said with a chuckle.
Former Congressman to lobby legislature
Former Idaho 1st District Congressman Raul Labrador, the chairman of the Idaho Republican Party, has registered as an Idaho lobbyist. In filings with the state on May 28 and May 30, Labrador listed two out-of-state clients for whom he’ll be lobbying: National Coalition for Public School Options, based in Washington, D.C.; and Shape Security, an application security firm based in Santa Clara, California.
Before representing Idaho in Congress from 2010 to 2018, Labrador was a state representative from 2006 to 2010, and an attorney in private practice specializing in immigration law.
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