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Idaho sees highest voter participation in primary election in decades

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IDAHO FALLS — Idaho hasn’t seen this high of voter participation in a primary election in at least 30 years.

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Brad Little mandated the May primary election be done only by absentee ballot, and Idahoans really stepped up. Of the state’s total 907,342 eligible voters, more than 47 percent requested ballots before the May 26 deadline.

Historical data for primary elections only goes back to 1980, when voter turnout reached about 31 percent. Primary election turnout is typically around 15 to 20 percent.

“The numbers truly speak for themselves,” Secretary of State Lawerence Denney said in a news release. “Voting is a right Idahoans hold dear, and they were not going to let the coronavirus get in their way of participating in the May primary election.”

Eastern Idaho was a little lower than the state average. About 194,725 eligible voters in eastern Idaho requested ballots, which is about 44 percent of eligible voters.

Nine counties in eastern Idaho actually achieved more than 50 percent participation: Custer, Butte, Lemhi, Fremont, Power, Oneida, Franklin, Bear Lake and Caribou counties.

The highest participation was in Custer and Butte, which both hit 64 percent, although that is likely because of their low population compared with other counties. In Custer, that’s 1,874 requested ballots out of 2,898 eligible voters. In Butte, it was 924 requests out of 1,440 eligible voters.

Madison County had the smallest percentage of absentee ballots requested. A little more than 35 percent of the county’s 18,202 eligible voters requested ballots.

The most populous areas were lower than average. About 43 percent of eligible voters participated in Bonneville County, 45 percent in Bingham, and 37 percent in Bannock.

Sending the ballots back

It’s important to remember that even though participation is high, the votes themselves may not be as high, since it’s likely some voters may not return their ballots by the June 2 deadline.

But things are looking promising. Chief Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck said more ballots have already been returned than the total number of votes cast in the May 2016 primary, the last non-gubernatorial primary election.

“(There were) 176,000 and change in terms of total number of voters in that 2016 primary. As of (last week), statewide, we already had over 181,000 votes returned,” Houck said.

Bonneville County Clerk Penny Manning said of the 23,537 absentee ballots mailed to Bonneville County voters, around 22 percent have been returned. That leaves more than 18,359 that need to be returned by 8 p.m. on June 2.

“As soon as folks do get their ballot, the faster they can turn them back into us, the better response we’re going to be able to provide on the 2nd,” Houck said.

Houck said processing and distributing more than 400,000 absentee ballots was not something the state was set up to handle. Only 25,000 absentee ballots were requested statewide in the February presidential primary, which is more than a 1,600 percent increase in absentee ballots between February and May.

“It gives a scope and scale to the logistics that had to be placed underway in a window of only 49 days,” Houck said. “We went from statewide being able to issue 25,000 ballots in a normal election, through the absentee process, to over 400,000 of them.”

He said the county clerks deserve praise for making that happen.

“We know multiple counties that have been running teams, literally around the clock, 80 hours plus in a given week, to get everything processed and get them out the door,” Houck said.

Anticipating the possible difficulty some voters may face in returning their ballots before the deadline, the Idaho Secretary of State’s office worked with Idaho’s Associated Grocers group to set up a program where all Albertson’s and Safeways statewide and a number of independent grocers throughout the state can help voters put postage on ballots for people to mail them in.

“The grocers that help with the customer service counter put the stamp on that envelope to make sure it gets back,” Houck said.

Idahovotes.gov has a complete list of local grocers that have agreed to help voters.

Houck said he is proud of what the state and the counties have been able to accomplish, although he hopes this isn’t something they will have to do again in future elections.

“This was definitely a move that was made as an emergency measure. We will learn from it, certainly. We will take cues from it to improve capacity in this area. But we’re nowhere near a position to do this in a sustained pattern at a 100 percent level,” he said.

Idaho isn’t unique in its decision to use absentee ballots in the era of COVID-19.

The decision to mail-in votes in Michigan and Nevada was criticized by President Donald Trump who, at one point, tweeted that it was illegal and he would withhold funding if it continued in Michigan. He also said that it would lead to voter fraud, according to the Washington Post.

“I think just common sense would tell you that massive manipulation can take place,” Trump told reporters during a news conference on May 20. “And you do have cases of fraudulent ballots where they actually print them and they give them to people to sign, maybe the same person signs them with different writing, different pens. I don’t know. It’s a lot of things can happen.”

Houck said the Secretary of State’s office looked into the legality of absentee voting.

“I’m not a lawyer, so I won’t give you a legal answer. But what I can tell you is, I’m not aware in my reading of the Constitution that it actually details the means by which someone is going to exercise their right to vote. It says we have a right to vote,” Houck said.

The last day to request an absentee ballot was May 26. Voters have until 8 p.m. June 2 to return their ballots to be counted in the primary election.

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