Editor’s note: This is the first in a periodic series on contested races and contests on Idaho’s November general election ballot.
BOISE — When two of the three candidates vying in the GOP primary to be Idaho’s next chief state elections officer denied the results of the 2020 presidential election, that drew national attention.
But neither won, and November’s contest for Idaho Secretary of State is a lower-key two-way race, pitting the longtime top election official in the state’s largest county against a North Idaho mortgage broker, political activist and first-time candidate.
“I was inspired to run because of all of the election deniers that are running across the country,” said Shawn Keenan of Coeur d’Alene, the Democratic nominee. “I saw this as a democratic emergency for our democracy. People need to stand up and ensure that crazy conspiracy will not rule the day.”
But Keenan said given the outcome of the Republican primary, in which Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane defeated two outspoken state legislators, Sen. Mary Souza and Rep. Dorothy Moon, he’s less worried now.
“It’s good to have competition. It’s good to give the voters a choice,” Keenan said. “But I am pleased to know that regardless of the results, I feel like Idaho will be in good hands.”
McGrane is making his second run for Idaho Secretary of State; he ran in a four-way GOP primary in 2014, coming in second to current GOP Secretary of State Lawerence Denney. Four years later, McGrane was elected Ada County Clerk, after eight years as chief deputy there.
“I think this is a great opportunity, with Secretary Denney retiring, to take that mantle and to help expand what we’ve been able to do successfully here in Ada County and share those resources across the state,” McGrane said. “I believe in the importance of elections. I’ve spent my entire career helping ensure people here in our community are able to exercise their right to vote.”
McGrane, 41, is a fourth-generation ldahoan and Pocatello native who holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Washington, a master’s degree in public administration from Boise State University, and a law degree from the University of Denver. An attorney, he served as a law clerk to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission while he was in law school.
But McGrane’s first job out of college, before heading off to law school, was working as an election specialist for the Ada County Clerk’s office. He returned there after law school as chief deputy.
“I think experience counts, especially in an executive role like this, where it is very much a functional role,” he said. “Secretaries of state … have jobs to do. When the county clerks contact the secretary of state for assistance, it’s because they’re looking for expertise and guidance to help make sure they can address their problems. And I think I bring that with all my years of experience, from training poll workers to working at polling places to counting ballots to helping run the Idaho Elections Conference.”
That’s an annual conference McGrane started that’s run for five years now, bringing together election officials and their staffs from across the state to discuss best practices and the law. McGrane launched the annual conference as the elections chair of the Idaho Association of County Recorders and Clerks.
Keenan, 45, holds a bachelor’s degree in communications and marketing from Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston. In addition to his work in real estate finance, he said, “I’ve been a political activist since I was 9 years old. I have been involved with elections at every level, from a simple volunteer making phone calls to door-knocking to actually running campaigns.”
“I understand the democratic process,” he said. “I have been working my entire life to give people access to the voting polls, give people information about their candidates and issues that will be on the ballot, and ensuring that the people’s will is expressed at the voter box on election day.”
Keenan said those efforts have included registering thousands of people to vote. “I believe that voting is the cornerstone of our democracy, and that giving people access is essential for our system to work properly. The more people that can vote, the more accurate the results will be.”
Keenan lists his top three issues as increasing training across the state for poll workers and county elections staff; establishing a “statewide voter guide issued from the Secretary of State’s office in a non-biased way;” and “equal, unobstructed access to voting.”
McGrane lists his top three issues as “protecting Idaho’s elections; protecting Idaho’s lands; and protecting Idaho’s values.”
The secretary of state, in addition to overseeing elections, serves on the state Land Board. Other duties include serving on other state boards; preparing session laws, filing all bills, proclamations and other official state documents; administering election laws and the “Sunshine Law” for campaign finance and lobbyist activity disclosure; filing business registrations and other business documents; and overseeing certain state registries.
McGrane said for him, Idaho values include limited government. In roles like county clerk and secretary of state, he said, “We often do our best work when we go unnoticed. That means things are going well.”
“The analogy I like to use is when you’re driving down the road, you should be thinking about your destination, not be thinking about the government that put it there,” he said. “But if you hit a pothole, you know government is not doing enough, and if you hit a speed bump, you know government is doing too much.”
“When you go vote, you should be able to go cast your ballot, have confidence your vote counts and not really think about the giant infrastructure that it took to actually make all that possible,” McGrane said. “I want our system to work so well that people have confidence in the system, have confidence that regardless of the outcome they are confident that their vote counted, and that it’s a reflection of the will of the community. I think we’ve done that well as a state, and I really want to build on that.”
McGrane partnered with the Idaho State Bar in a project in which volunteer lawyers attended county poll worker training 2020 in Ada and Gem counties, and developed a poll worker training manual for use statewide, in counties of any size. They presented it at the annual Idaho Elections Conference and distributed it to all 44 counties.
If elected, he hopes to work with the Legislature to strengthen and clarify Idaho’s voter identification laws, specifically with regard to voter registration; rewrite and clarify the state’s sunshine laws to make it easier to comply and enable uniform enforcement; and launch a statewide nonpartisan voter guide to be sent out to voters from the secretary of state’s office, a goal he shares with Keenan.
“One of the most common questions we get is about ‘where is my voter guide,’” McGrane said, “because other states provide them.” He noted that Idaho currently, by law, sends out a voter guide only for constitutional amendments and initiatives. “That’s it, that’s all you get,” he said. “But that’s not the questions most people have. They want to know who is running for assessor or who is running for their highway district or their school board or, heck, even their legislative candidates. I think that access to information produces greater participation, and I want to see people take advantage and exercise their right to vote.”
McGrane said voters should be informed of when elections occur, where to find information about how to vote, and “at least the tools to go look into the candidates. … Everyone can go do their own research, and maybe voters will or won’t avail themselves of the information, but getting that kind of uniform access to information so people know what they’re going to be voting on – I think that’s particularly important at a time like right now, and important to do it uniformly across the state.”
He noted that with redistricting, many voters in November will be in new legislative districts, and “voting for people that they don’t recognize, because they’re used to having voted for somebody else. But we need to make sure voters know your legislative district changed, and therefore you now have potentially new representation.”
A self-described “data junkie,” McGrane said he also hopes to increase transparency into campaign finance data by making it easier to access and sort for a variety of users.
“Transparency is so powerful, especially in this arena,” he said.
Keenan said he wants to counter “ridiculous claims” of election fraud in Idaho. “We know in fact that here in Idaho, they did two audits, including one up here in Bonner County, and found that there wasn’t any fraud,” he said.
McGrane said, “Idahoans should be proud of how our elections work and our election system. I think we do things very well. We have people who take the job very seriously, and I want to continue to lead us down that successful path that we’ve been on.”