Idaho’s abrupt shift to casting ballots exclusively by mail has Kootenai County Clerk Jim Brannon calling for reinforcements throughout his office.
“It’s literally all hands on deck,” Brannon said on Tuesday morning, just hours before the deadline for primary voters to register and sign up to receive an absentee ballot.
Gov. Brad Little’s proclamation in March that the May 19 primary would be conducted via mail over fears of the spreading coronavirus set clerk’s offices, like Brannon’s, on a mad dash to alter systems that usually depend heavily on Election Day polling sites.
The Republican county clerk, who oversees 90 deputies performing functions in five offices that have not turned their attention to elections, said turnout was already ahead of the November general election and would likely challenge the records of past primaries.
“We sent 34,600 as of yesterday, and we’re getting a couple thousand to 3,000 back every day,” Brannon said. “We have received, as of yesterday, 14,380 ballots back.”
For comparison, Kootenai County reported 22,705 voters in the May 2018 primary. In May 2016, there were 15,858 ballots cast, meaning the county on Monday was already approaching turnout from four years ago.
Voters have until June 2 to return their ballots to the elections office, and with registration possible through 8 p.m. Tuesday, many potential voters still don’t have their ballots in hand.
Bonner County was reporting similar interest in voting by mail, elections officer Charlie Wurm said.
“They’re basically pouring in,” Wurm said of absentee requests, which could be sent electronically, including via fax, or dropped off in person at the county’s elections office in Sandpoint.
Despite the abrupt switch, local party representatives said they’d heard little complaints about the voting process.
“We seem to have very little confusion about what’s going on,” said Brent Regan, chairman of the Kootenai County GOP.
Regan said there had been some issues with trying to apply for an absentee ballot online, including entering an incorrect driver’s license number or correcting errors about a birthday in the state’s voter registration rolls, both pieces of information that are used to determine voter eligibility.
Little’s order requires the state to follow the absentee voting process already on the books in Idaho for the May primary, but also extended registration and absentee request deadlines to Tuesday.
Laura Tenneson, interim chair of the Kootenai County Democrats, said party members were thrilled with the decision to extend the deadlines and conduct the election via mail. Criticism has instead been focused on the system that closes the Republican primary to voters who have not declared the GOP as their preference, Tenneson said, and with no Democrats in the running for Kootenai County sheriff some voters have felt disenfranchised.
“It’s upsetting to some of our voters,” Tenneson said. “I don’t think that anyone should lose a voice in such an important race because of their political party.”
Democrats will get a chance to vote in the general election for sheriff in November. Tenneson said she understood the argument that the Democrats would have a candidate to vote for, if their party had fielded a candidate.
While Regan and Tenneson said the process has been smooth for voters of both parties, they disagreed on the need for Idaho to conduct all-mail voting in the future, as is done in Washington state and has been advocated for on the national level, mostly by members of the Democratic Party and their voters.
“The biggest advantage to doing mail-in ballots is you can sit and do your homework as you vote,” Tenneson said. “That leads to more informed voters, along with increased voter turnout. I think it’s definitely the way to go.”
Regan said he didn’t think there was much appetite in Idaho for an exclusively vote-by-mail system.
“People in Idaho like voting in person. I know I do,” Regan said. “That’s kind of an act of citizenship. People enjoy or look forward to it as part of their routine.”
The debate over whether to conduct elections exclusively by mail is one Brannon said he’d like to have. But not when he’s trying to process thousands of applications for ballots and preparing to collect and count them by June 2.
“It’s not about jobs being easier. It’s about making sure that we don’t disenfranchise everybody that wants to vote,” Brannon said.
Here’s a quick rundown of the races on the ballot in North Idaho:
U.S. Senate: Republican voters have one candidate, incumbent Sen. Jim Risch, on their ballots. Democrats can choose between Paulette Jordan, a former state representative and gubernatorial candidate, and Jim Vandermaas, a former longtime law enforcement officer from Eagle.
U.S. House of Representatives: Incumbent Rep. Russ Fulcher faces off against entrepreneur Nicholas Jones on the Republican ballot. Democrats can choose between Staniela Nikolova, a law student at the University of Idaho, and Rudy Soto, a military veteran and former Congressional staffer.
Legislative District 2: Republican candidates have exclusively filed for state Senate and House seats in the district, which encompasses the northern and eastern portions of Kootenai County. Incumbent state Sen. Steve Vick is running unopposed. State Rep. Vito Barbieri is running against Russell McClain, a previous candidate for Kootenai County commissioner. For the other state House of Representatives seat, retired business owner Tim Kastning, who worked on Fulcher’s Congressional campaign and on his staff, is running against Doug Okuniewicz, a patent holder from Hayden who’s advocated to the Legislature on behalf of the gaming industry.
Legislative District 3: On the Republican side, three challengers have filed to fill the state Senate seat vacated by retiring Sen. Don Cheatham: Marc Eberlein, Peter Riggs and Alex Barron. No Democrat has filed in the race in a district that encompasses Rathdrum, Post Falls and Worley.
The state House races are uncontested within the parties. Incumbent Republican state Reps. Ron Mendive and Tony Wisniewski are running unopposed. Democrats Christopher S. Matthews and Teresa Borrenpohl are running unopposed for the state House of Representative seats, respectively.
Legislative District 4: No Democratic candidate filed for the state Senate or House of Representatives in this district, which encompasses Coeur d’Alene. On the Republican side, incumbent state Sen. Mary Souza and incumbent state Rep. Paul Amador are running unopposed. Their colleague, state Rep. Jim Addis, has drawn a challenge from Pat “Mitch” Mitchell, who has previously run unsuccessfully as a Democrat for city office in Coeur d’Alene.
Kootenai County commissioner: Two seats on the commission are up for grabs, and the fields are exclusively Republican. Incumbent commissioner Bill Brooks faces off against challengers Nicholas Henderson and Dave Steward. Incumbent commissioner Chris Filios is running against Elizabeth Jacobsen and Greg Delavan.
Kootenai County sheriff: Four Republicans have filed for the office that is open with the retirement of Sheriff Ben Wolfinger. Kim Edmonson is a captain in the office. John Grimm is a manufacturing company owner and reserve deputy. Bob Norris is a retired Los Angeles sheriff’s deputy. Rick Whitehead is a public safety training consultant.
Also on the ballot: Advisory votes will be on the ballot on two issues: supporting the use of urban renewal districts, which use some property tax revenue in the area to spur private development, and whether to construct a facility in the county intended to house inmates nearing release and those who have failed probation and parole. Residents in the Bayview Water & Sewer District will also be asked whether to sell $3.4 million in bonds to acquire land and construct improvements.
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