Potential perfect storm of changes await Idaho voters next week
Election officials work to prepare voters for what's to come
Recently, an election official noted that “uncertainty is the enemy of election administration.”
This year in Idaho, which holds its primary on May 15, not only has uncertainty been an enemy, but so has change.
In addition to redistricting, the state legislature made several major changes to how Idahoans vote and that has left many local election officials scrambling to implement the changes and explain them to voters.
This year will be Idaho’s first-ever closed primary. Every voter will have to declare a party affiliation for the first time. About a week before the election, the secretary of state’s office figured that about 85 percent of the state’s voters had yet to officially declare a party.
“Redistricting and closed primaries have the potential of creating a perfect storm,” said Christopher Rich, clerk for Ada County. “We have done substantial outreach with the media and they have been very helpful in explaining closed primaries and directing the public to our web site for further information.”
According to Sara Staub, Bingham County clerk, her county sent out new registration cards to registered voters, precinct by precinct and asked that they fill them out and designate their party so that this could be done prior to the primary election.
“We had about 68 percent of the cards returned,” Staub said. “Because of cost, we were not able to do all of the precincts but we did a good cross section. We felt this would help with the process on election day and help the lines move faster.”
All of this additional work to accommodate the legislatively mandated changes has cost counties money they didn’t have budgeted and required additional work from existing employees.
“It has literally ‘taxed’ the county’s resources for personnel. The amount of additional work from training to PR has taken up a lot of time,” said Staub. “We have had to bring on extra part time workers to fill in the gaps.”
Patty Weeks, clerk of Nez Perce County echoed Straub’s concerns about the impact these changes have had on personnel, and ultimately the public.
“The personnel costs associated with this change answering the public’s questions — specifically about the caucus — were unexpected. Other parts of our operation have had to take a back seat and we have provided less service in order to accommodate the public inquiries,” Weeks said. “We did use some contingency money from our budget to meet additional newspaper costs. The ballot costs were also a significant increase which we did budget.”
Counties haven’t been alone in their struggle to prepare for next week’s election. The state legislature allocated $200,000 to the secretary of state’s office for voter education efforts and to help counties make the necessary changes.
And many of the county officials sang the praises of the secretary of state’s office for the help it provided throughout the process.
In some instances it was one county helping another. Canyon County faced more redistricting hurdles than others did and was left scrambling to accommodate new precincts and the equipment necessary to make it happen. According to the Idaho Statesman, Twin Falls County, which actually lost precincts in the redistricting, gave Canyon County six AutoMark accessible voting machines.
“That saves us a ton of money,” Deputy Clerk Brad Jackson told the paper. “We had a quote for $4,200 apiece.”
Even though Twin Falls County didn’t face some of the same redistricting struggles that other counties did, that didn’t mean it’s been smooth sailing. Kristina Glascok, county clerk, said the changes have had a lot of impacts on her office including additional data entry, new ballot layout and design and guesstimating just how many ballots they will need.
In addition to that, training for poll workers has changed and consumed a lot of time.
“Poll worker training has been difficult explaining all of the changes,” Glascok said. “It has doubled the length of our training sessions.”
Clifford Hayes, clerk in Kootenai County said that early voting has helped prepare his poll workers and staff for what could happen on Tuesday. Overall, he’s been pleased with the response of the voters and his staff.
“There have been some voters that have been confused,” Hayes said. “But not numerous amounts so I think that people are starting to understand.”
Still, no matter how well they are prepared and how much voter outreach counties do in advance of Tuesday, they ultimately don’t know what to expect from voters.
“Our concern is the independent nature of Idaho voters combined with the number of voters who have registered as Unaffiliated,” Rich added. “Should they — the Unaffiliated voter — choose a nonpartisan ballot expecting to see contested races they will be gravely disappointed.... and how will that play out; hence our investment in additional personnel, training, materials and voter outreach.”