Just eight Idaho cities have ordinances calling for runoffs in mayor or city council races, and Caldwell’s not among them. The issue comes up because after disgraced former state Sen. John McGee won a Caldwell council seat in a three-way race with 39 percent of the vote, some in the city questioned whether he had fully satisfied the city code’s requirements to win a majority.
Deputy Idaho Attorney General Brian Kane said the overall state law, which is the default position for all Idaho cities, says that the candidate who gets the most votes wins the race, whether it’s for city council or mayor. State law also specifically authorizes cities, at their discretion, to pass a local ordinance to require a runoff between the two top vote-getters if no candidate gets a majority of the vote.
“The Legislature has given that discretion,” Kane said. The law allowing cities that option first passed in 1984. Boise enacted its runoff ordinance in 2003 both for city council and mayoral races, but then repealed the city council portion of it in 2006, leaving only a runoff requirement for mayoral races. Now, the state’s capital city is facing a Dec. 3 runoff for mayor.
Penny Manning, Bonneville County clerk, has dealt with a number of city runoffs in her eastern Idaho county. “Idaho Falls is the only city in the state that has runoffs for council members,” she said.
The others, which all have runoff ordinances applying only to mayoral races, are American Falls, Blackfoot, Boise, Eagle, Mountain Home, Pocatello and Spirit Lake.
“What our experience has been is that it does not change the outcome,” Manning said. “We’ve had several runoffs, both for council seats and for mayoral ones, and it just has never changed the outcome”
She added, “We got lucky and didn’t have one this year.”
The last runoff in Bonneville County was in the Idaho Falls mayor’s race in 2017. Mayor Rebecca Casper led in a five-way race in November with 46.5% to runner-up Barbara Ehardt’s 26.7%, triggering a runoff. A month later, Casper won the runoff with 61% of the vote to Ehardt’s 39%.
Justin Ruen, policy analyst for the Association of Idaho Cities, said, “It’s rare that they change the results from the original election.” He said the only time he remembers that happening was in a 2007 race for Eagle mayor. “Usually, the runoff election confirms the result of the general election.”
Ruen said that’s likely part of the reason so few Idaho cities require them, along with their cost; Boise’s looking at an anticipated $100,000 cost for its upcoming runoff. Idaho has roughly 200 incorporated cities.
As reporter Erin Bamer reports in today's Idaho Press, second-place finisher Evangeline Beecher says she and her legal team are looking into whether Caldwell actually has had language that could qualify as a runoff ordinance on its books since 1989 but has been ignoring it for 30 years. In 2017, Beechler ran in a three-way race for a council seat and Rob Hopper won with 37% of the vote; there was no runoff.