BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Secretary of State Ben Ysursa's office said Thursday that he may back changes to a 2-year-old Idaho election law after some voters who wanted to personally cast absentee ballots before this week's city elections complained they were forced to drive miles.
The heartburn that preceded Tuesday's vote resulted from election reforms passed by the 2009 Idaho Legislature to simplify voting, including by reducing the number of elections.
It also put county clerks in charge, and Tuesday was the first time they oversaw municipal votes. In most if not all of Idaho's 44 counties, the clerks had just one early absentee polling place, typically at the courthouse or election office.
As a result, residents of tiny Carey in Blaine County had to drive to Hailey — 32 miles away — to cast an early absentee ballot for city council candidates. And to vote early in person for the mayor of Meridian, the fast-growing Ada County city's residents had to drive about 10 miles east into Boise.
Ysursa may now back legislation to help restore early voting at city halls for municipal elections, on grounds it may boost the number of people who cast ballots.
"People from cities have not been happy about that," said Tim Hurst, Ysursa's top deputy. "The secretary is into voter participation and turnout. We think it would be a good idea."
In 2009, the most-publicized provisions of the $5.6 million, Republican-backed election consolidation measure trimmed the number of elections that local governments and school districts can hold annually to just four. The measure, which passed over protests of Democrats who feared it will make it tougher for public schools to pass bonds, was touted by GOP supporters as a way to make it easier for voters to find polling places and reduce so-called stealth elections, where a few deeply committed voters control the outcome.
But the changes that caused the most consternation ahead of Tuesday's election were the ones that forced city residents to get in their cars and head elsewhere to choose their local elected officials.
Brad Hoaglun, a Meridian city councilman, said he spoke with people who were surprised by the changes after growing accustomed to voting at City Hall.
"It wasn't a huge outcry," Hoaglun said. "But it kind of made people question why they had to do that."
Meridian had asked Ada County to set up a polling place at its City Hall but opted against it when it learned of the hurdles, said Jo Spencer, an Ada County election supervisor.
"It would have cost the city a fairly large amount to have a secure line, and we would have had to staff that," Spencer said. "The city opted not to do that, because they would have been paying for the line to be put in. They decided it would have been too expensive, to use once every other year."
To be sure, Idaho absentee voters can still request a mail-in ballot and vote at their leisure before elections.
Having a single polling place for in-person absentee voting helps ensure everything runs smoothly and fairly, said Blaine County Clerk JoLynn Drage, adding that absentee polling places away from her office's watchful eye might lead to double voting or other election shenanigans.
"I personally like it this way," Drage said Thursday. "If it's at City Hall, how do I oversee something my office is responsible for, when my office is 30 miles away?"
Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot and an author of the 2009 election reforms, said Thursday that he, too, had heard from some unhappy voters.
He'll talk with Ysursa about possible changes, especially if some voters think the new election law makes it tougher to participate. But Lake said he wants to make sure clerks like Drage are heard, too, since their duty to run all Idaho elections now makes them the state's gatekeepers of a fair democracy.
Expanding polling places makes sense, Lake said, "as long as there are adequate sideboards."