BOISE — After a federal court extended the ballot-request deadline for the May primary election due to problems with the Idaho Secretary of State’s website that kept some voters from getting their requests in on time, another 14,000 came in, for a total of roughly 429,000.
Among the 14,000, 3,010 were submitted online through the state’s IdahoVotes website, said Chad Houck, deputy secretary of state. The rest mostly arrived by mail. The state’s website experienced the same problems during the extension that it had earlier, Houck said, including exceeding its capacity, causing requests to fail.
Houck said the website also has other problems, and has all along. “We’ve been saying from Day 1 that there would be folks that wouldn’t be able to utilize it because it wouldn’t, for whatever reason, verify their information,” he said. “It is one of multiple methods to achieve the same end goal, and it does not work for everyone.”
Other issues with the site included problems entering birth dates from Android phones; and the fact that those who lacked a valid Idaho driver’s license couldn’t use it, he said.
This month’s primary election is Idaho’s first all-absentee ballot election, and U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled late Friday that despite extensive efforts to educate voters, the state had failed to make its main advertised route for voters to request absentee ballots before the deadline actually available to voters.
“The concern is those who had access to the internet understood that they could rely on that, that they could use the website, and it did not work,” the judge said during a Friday evening court hearing.
“The right to vote has long been recognized as essential to the protection and exercise of constitutional rights and the constitutional structure itself,” Winmill said, “and therefore I think it is very easy in this context to show irreparable harm if someone is deprived of the right to cast a ballot.”
The lawsuit requesting the federal court to extend the deadline was brought by Nicholas Jones, a GOP challenger to freshman 1st District GOP Congressman Russ Fulcher, and several voters who were unable to request ballots by the original deadline because the website didn’t work for them.
“The fact that 176,000 people were able to request their ballots from it means that 176,000 requests didn’t have to be manually entered by the counties,” Houck said. “That in my mind is a win.”
Ada County tallied an additional 4,543 ballot requests after the initial May 19 deadline, according to county Clerk Phil McGrane. “Of those, 1,325 came from idahovotes.gov, and the other 3,218 mostly came from the mail,” he said. “They were the ones that came after the deadline; we received the bulk of those the day after the election.”
In Canyon County, an additional 1,616 ballots were requested by residents following the extension, spokesman Joe Decker said. This brings the total number of requests to 44,941 for the county.
As of Wednesday afternoon, 20,850 ballots had been returned to the Canyon County Elections Office, at 1102 E. Chicago Street in Caldwell, Decker said. Last Friday, about 14,000 had been received.
Canyon County Clerk Chris Yamamoto told the Idaho Press he understood the reasoning behind the extension, saying the state’s website to “request absentee ballots worked for some and did not work well for others.”
But Yamamoto said the time frame just didn’t make sense because many of the requested ballots might not be returned in time to the county, or even be received by the voter via mail before next week’s deadline.
Canyon County residents are encouraged to drop off their ballots at the elections office in Caldwell by 8 p.m. June 2 to ensure it is received and counted, Yamamoto said.
If all voters who requested absentee ballots actually return them and vote, Idaho would see a record-high turnout for a primary election of roughly 47.5% of registered voters. The 2018 primary drew 32.6% of registered voters, and it was a high-interest election with contested races for governor, Congress and more in both parties. The 2016 Idaho primary drew just 23% of registered voters.
McGrane said, “The big looming question is how many of these actually come back. We have looked at it. … The return rate is always lower in primaries than it is in general elections. Looking at that, we would expect it to be 75 to 80% of these come back, if it follows a typical primary return rate, but this election has been atypical in every way.”
“I still think it will be a record turnout,” McGrane said.
Election officials are advising voters who are just now receiving their ballots in the mail to immediately complete them and deliver them in person to drop-boxes outside their county election offices, as the time frame is so tight that if they’re mailed, they might not make it in time for Tuesday’s deadline. It’s not a postmark deadline; completed ballots must be in the hands of county clerks by then.
Ada County has added a second location to drop off completed ballots. In addition to the drop box outside the county elections office at 400 N. Benjamin Lane No. 100, the “Early Votes” trailer in the county courthouse parking lot at 200 W. Front St. is now accepting completed ballots weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Houck said the state will have an entirely new website, with different architecture behind it, up and running in time for the next election. “The new stuff is totally different,” he said. “It has a capability that didn’t exist when the old architecture was designed 10-15 years ago.”
Houck said the largest portion of the additional ballot requests were those that arrived in the mail the day after the original deadline; because of the extension, all were processed.