Amid last week’s post-election frenzy over the Caldwell City Council results, one thing was clear amid the confusion: the city of Caldwell must clean up its city code regarding elections.
The day after the Nov. 5 election, with John McGee assumed the winner of Seat 6, uncertainty started to grow.
McGee, a former state senator who resigned in 2012 amid a sexual harassment investigation, got the most votes out of the three candidates, with 39%. Did that meet the code’s requirement that the winner get a “majority”?
The city in the past has interpreted “majority” as meaning more votes than any other candidate. Majority, according to Merriam-Webster and legal dictionaries, can also mean more than 50%.
This city code has been on the books for 30 years, and no candidate so far has ever been held to that absolute majority standard. Rob Hopper, for instance, won a seat in 2017 with 37% of the vote. The possibility of a runoff never came up.
Now, the city is calling for one, based on advice from state officials.
The morning after the election, with McGee the presumed winner, second-place candidate Evangeline Beechler and other Caldwell residents started raising questions about the city code.
“Members of the Caldwell city council shall be elected by a majority of the qualified electors as established by the Idaho Code,” it reads.
Questions swirled all morning and afternoon. The city said it would issue a statement, but by the end of the business day, the only update was: “The issue is taking longer to reach a conclusion than the City of Caldwell anticipated, but legal counsel fully expects to reach a decision by the end of the day tomorrow, November 8. We thank you for your patience.”
The default position for Idaho cities is for mayoral and city council candidates to win with the most votes, Deputy Idaho Attorney General Brian Kane told the Idaho Press Nov. 7. However, cities can also pass a local ordinance requiring a runoff between the two top vote-getters if no one gets a majority.
By Nov. 8, three days after the election, Caldwell had an answer for the public. Officials from the Secretary of State’s and Attorney General’s offices had reviewed the city code and advised Canyon County that a runoff was necessary. That’s because Caldwell code points to Idaho Code 50-707B, which calls for a runoff election between the top two vote-getters if no majority is reached.
Phew, are you exhausted reading this yet? Hold on tight, there is more.
McGee’s attorney — former Idaho Attorney General David Leroy — said it’s not just the word “majority” that’s problematic here. Caldwell’s code also says the successful candidate needs a majority of “qualified electors.” That term, Leroy says, means all registered voters. So to win, he argues, a candidate would need at least half of all votes from every registered voter in the city, not just those who show up to the polls. If only half of registered voters cast a ballot, a candidate would need 100% of those votes to get a majority, Leroy says.
The confusion here is detrimental to the democratic process. For a city council race to cause such uncertainty — and for understanding to come days after the election, only after two state agencies weigh in — is unacceptable.
Caldwell officials have already said they plan to clarify the ordinance in the next few weeks. We agree that step is absolutely necessary. The code should be clear enough for officials, voters and candidates to understand what it takes to win an election. Officials should not be wrestling with that question after the election has taken place.
We hope this is a lesson for other cities across the state. Review your code, and if the language is vague or unclear, amend it.
We’re not advocating one way or the other for Caldwell to keep a runoff requirement in the code or remove it. If you as a voter have an opinion on that, make it known to your elected officials.
After all of this, you may be wondering: Were other Caldwell City Council members elected without an absolute majority in office illegally?
According to the Caldwell attorney’s office, the answer is no.
“Because such candidates took office in good faith under the prevailing application of City Code, and in the absence of any objection or election contest, they hold their offices legitimately and legally,” according to the city’s Nov. 8 statement.
This whole situation highlights not only the need for cities to be clear in their code, but for residents to get out and vote. Voters in both Caldwell and Boise will have the chance to weigh in again on Dec. 3, and in the early voting process that starts Monday. Please don’t pass up this opportunity to be part of the decision on who runs your city.