Breaking news: Idaho has vote by mail – the same as Oregon and Washington.
Of course, there’s one catch. Voters must take the initiative to request an absentee ballot. In Oregon and Washington, ballots are mailed to everybody with a driver’s license and a pulse.
Then, you know what happens? In primary elections, at least, a good number of voters apparently get their ballots in the mail and use them to line cat-litter boxes. Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney says Oregon’s turnout in the last primary was about 36 percent and Washington’s was 35 percent. Idaho’s turnout was a pitiful 30 percent, but not that much lower than the two neighboring states.
Forget about the prospects for a legislative solution in Idaho.
“I don’t believe that the 5-6 percent difference is enough to convince our Legislature that it is worth the added problems to go to a mail-ballot system,” Denney said.
That means 70 percent of registered voters, give or take a few points, will be sitting out during one of the most dramatic primary elections in years. The governor, lieutenant governor and First Congressional District offices are up for grabs, and most Idahoans will not have a stake in the races.
“I’ve said, jokingly, that we will have a record turnout in next year’s primary if only the relatives of the candidates running voted,” Denney said.
Critics put part of the blame on Denney, who as speaker of the House was among those pushing through a closed primary – where only registered Republicans could vote in GOP primaries. But voter turnout was disgustingly low long before “closed” primaries existed. Denney defends his stand on closed primaries, and he makes a good point.
“A primary is not strictly an election. It is a nominating process,” Denney says. So, it’s only right to expect that only Republicans participate in the GOP nominating process. It’s also right to expect the Republican Party, and not state taxpayers, to pay for the party’s primary. The question in Idaho is whether we should have primary elections at all, with so few voters participating. Why bother?
Of course, we will continue to “bother” with May primary elections next year and the foreseeable future – and people will continue to be more concerned about graduation parties and holiday vacations than voting in those elections. But the system itself is fairly sound.
“Voting in Idaho is so easy,” Denney says. “If you want to vote by mail, all you have to do is request an absentee ballot. We’re going to online registration before the next election, so the registration will be easier. There can be early voting six weeks before an election, and absentee voting starts 45 days out. I don’t know how we can make voting easier than what it is.”
Early voting has its downside. Candidates can say, or do, things in the stretch run that can change people’s minds – which is why I usually wait until Election Day to cast my ballot. But early, or absentee, voting is worth it for the convenience of voters – even though those options don’t make a significant difference in the turnout.
Denney, who sits on the Elections and Voter Participation Committee for the national Secretaries of States, says other states don’t seem to have the magic formula for increasing voter turnout in primaries. It’s low in other states, whether they’re held in May or September.
“Other states are looking at online voting, but the security hasn’t been perfected to the point where anybody is willing to try it. That’s another way of making it easier to vote than what it is,” he said.
Everyone sitting in a secretary of state’s chair is interested in promoting higher turnouts in elections, but secretaries appear to be fighting a losing cause.
“As easy as it is to vote in Idaho and other states, participation should be close to 100 percent,” Denney says. “Either people like what’s going on with government, or they are so disgusted that it doesn’t matter.”
A third possibility is that people flat-out don’t care.