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Legislature weighs 6 bills that may affect the way you vote, how your ballot is counted

Politics

BOISE (Idaho Statesman) – After false claims of widespread voter fraud perpetuated by elected officials ran rampant in the November general election, Republican legislators across the U.S. are scrutinizing state election laws and cracking down on ways that have historically made mail-in voting more accessible.

Idaho is no exception. State legislators began to introduce bills that would address aspects of absentee voting that faced criticism nationwide. Republicans also took up other election measures that failed in previous years.

In a floor debate over an election measure, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said he doesn’t want people to be able to deliver other people’s ballots. A bill aimed at ballot collections would protect voters from fraud, he said.

“So you have to make two trips to the post office, I understand that concern,” Moyle said. “But you know what? Voting shouldn’t be easy.”

This year Idaho Republicans will consider a broad range of new election laws — a more restrictive initiative process, a bill against “ballot harvesting,” changes to the absentee ballot process, election audits and a new voter ID law.

Rep. Mike Moyle wants to criminalize ballot gathering

A bill sponsored by Moyle would make holding someone else’s mail-in ballot a felony.

Moyle last month pulled the bill off the floor after the debate showed it was at risk of failing. Several Republicans gave personal examples of how their families — who often drop off family members’ ballots — would have been affected by the bill. A new version of the measure, which increased the allowable ballots from two to six and expanded the definition of family, passed the House last week with a 56-12 vote.

Kathy Dawes with the Moscow-based League of Women Voters opposed the original measure in a public hearing, saying that harvesting has never been an issue in Idaho. The legislation would only lead to more barriers for eligible voters, she said.

“Let’s not fix a problem that isn’t happening with legislation that could possibly lead to voter suppression,” Dawes said.

Montana voters approved a similar law in 2018 that was challenged by Native American advocacy groups, who argued that they relied on ballot collection efforts to turn in Native votes. Many of the voters live at nontraditional addresses and lived far from the nearest post office. A Billings court judge in September sided with the advocates and ordered the state to reverse its law, concluding that it’s a measure that doesn’t improve election security and creates more unnecessary barriers for rural and tribal voters.

Western Native Voice, a Montana-based Native American advocacy group, said the group recently began more organizing efforts in Idaho. While it hasn’t begun collecting ballots in Idaho, Western Native Voice activists told the Statesman that their organizing efforts with the Nez Perce tribe last year significantly increased voter turnout — Precinct 26, which has the majority of the Nez Perce tribal reservation, had 88.5% voter turnout in November compared to 20% in the 2016 presidential election, they said.

Western Native Voice Deputy Director Ta’jin Perez said the ballot collection bill would risk disenfranchising voters who already have a difficult time voting.

“It’s unfortunate that we’re seeing this in Idaho,” Perez said. “We’re just now getting our feet on the ground there.”

Citizen-led initiative process could get more challenging

Senators in a 26-9 vote on Monday approved a bill that would make Idaho’s citizen-led ballot initiative more restrictive. Now it will head to the House.

Currently, the state requires a petition to place an initiative on the ballot that includes 6% of registered voters from each of at least 18 legislative districts. Senate Bill 1110 would require that petitions include signatures from 6% of voters from every district. Idaho has 35 legislative districts.

The bill contains an emergency clause and would take effect immediately if it’s passed. It comes a year after activists pushing to place a medical marijuana initiative on the ballot gathered nearly the number of signatures they needed — right before the pandemic hit. Another initiative effort from Reclaim Idaho to increase education funding failed to get enough signatures last year.

Sen. Mark Nye, D-Pocatello, said the emergency clause was reason alone to oppose the legislation.

Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, who sponsored the bill, acknowledged the bill makes it more difficult to place an initiative on the ballot. But he said ultimately he believes the initiative should include all corners of the state.

“My purpose is not to make it harder,” Vick told the Statesman on Monday. “My purpose is to make it more inclusive.”

Sen. Kevin Cook, R-Idaho Falls, said he believes the initiative process should be challenging.

“I would say yes, it probably is harder,” Cook said. “Is that a good thing? I would say yes.”

Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, gave the example of an initiative to legalize marijuana. He said once a marijuana initiative is on the ballot, outside interests would have enough money to sell the measure to voters.

Patrick said that because the U.S. is a republic, not a democracy, the state must “be able to have our representatives we have here make the decisions in most cases.” He said the Legislature is the best way to ensure the state’s voters beyond dense population centers fairly have a voice.

Boise Democrats criticized the bill for putting minority voices above the majority and what they believed was preempting measures.

“I always marvel at the idea that rural Idaho is somehow being victimized by urban Idaho,” said Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise. “I can tell you, as an urban legislator, it’s very hard to get anything done in this Legislature on behalf of urban interests.”

Sen. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, said it was important to allow the state’s voters to “check a Legislature that was unresponsive to its needs.” She said Idaho is “not California” and doesn’t have a problem with too many initiatives making it on the ballot.

“I think it’s very simple, that our part is not to get in the way of our people,” Wintrow said on the floor.

Conservation Voters for Idaho’s executive director, Rialin Flores, in a statement issued Monday night called the bill “an egregious attack on our constitutional rights.”

“SB1110 creates enormous hurdles for everyday Idahoans to use their constitutional right to put forth issues on the ballot,” Flores said. “Extremely well-funded groups would be the only ones able to afford reaching the high bar of obtaining signatures in all 35 legislative districts.”

Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, was one of two Republicans who voted against the bill. He said similarly, a concentration of influence could also be said about bills that pass in the Legislature. In 2018, two initiatives were on the ballot — Johnson said the one that passed, on Medicaid expansion, garnered support from 35 of Idaho’s 44 counties.

“I think the system is working,” Johnson said. “I think we should trust the system.”

Mail-in votes wouldn’t count toward presidential electors

A Middleton Republican wants to invalidate most absentee ballots to count for presidential elections.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Tammy Nichols would allow only votes cast in person on Election Day, absentee ballots cast by members of the military and absentee ballots cast by voters who physically can’t vote in person to count toward presidential electors.

It would not bar voters from sending mail-in ballots, and those ballots would still count toward other races or statewide measures.

Nichols told the Statesman in-person voting is the safest way to measure against types of voter fraud. She criticized courts for allowing changes to election procedures in battleground states last year and said those courts allowed for ballot harvesting and prevention of signature verification.

While some mistakes or instances of voter fraud occur every year, there is no evidence that widespread voter fraud last year changed the outcome of the presidential election. Courts reviewed key states’ presidential election results through dozens of lawsuits and found no proof to claims that the election was stolen from President Donald Trump.

Nichols said the bill is “more of a preventative measure” that helps ensure integrity in Idaho elections. Nichols didn’t directly answer questions about why some absentee ballots would be allowed to count and not others, or why mail-in ballots would count toward other races.

Several legislators in committee questioned whether the bill would stand legal muster. It hasn’t had a hearing yet.

Dave Adler, an Idaho Falls-based political analyst and former law professor, said he believed the measure violates the 14th Amendment and would require evidence of widespread voter fraud to justify an encroachment on voters’ rights.

“This proposal is blatantly anti-democratic,” Adler wrote in an email to the Statesman. “Its sponsors seek to restrict the voting rights of citizens and to dilute the impact of their vote in an arbitrary and disproportionate manner.”

A new voter ID law?

A bill introduced in a House committee would require an Idaho driver’s license with the voter’s current address, or a driver’s license and another document with a current address, to cast ballots. Currently any photo ID could be used to vote, including student IDs.

Rep. Brandon Mitchell, R-Moscow, who sponsored the bill, said by phone Tuesday that “it was a starting point” and is still going through changes. The bill currently would allow voters to obtain another type of ID issued by the state Department of Transportation valid for four years if they can’t afford to get a driver’s license.

The new law could cost up to $2 million to offer the ID alternative, according to the bill’s fiscal note. That money would need to be approved by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

Mitchell said stricter voter ID laws would ensure Idaho stays “fair and free” after seeing issues in other states — he said voters have used high school IDs and Amazon boxes to verify addresses in Moscow. He said student IDs may be allowed in a new version if voters can somehow also verify date of birth.

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said the bill makes it more difficult for young voters and students to cast their ballots with no evidence young people are fraudulently voting.

“We have very low levels of young people engaging in voting,” Rubel said in a press conference with Democratic leaders last week. “We think, if anything, we should be trying to boost participation in our democracy, not spending $2 million as this bill proposes to do to suppress it.”

Mitchell told the Statesman on Tuesday he didn’t know how many voters tried to vote in counties where they didn’t live. It’s currently a felony to vote in the wrong county or commit voter fraud.

“We’re trying to make it as easy as possible but yet still secure so that we don’t have people voting in areas they’re not supposed to be voting,” Mitchell said. “It’s kind of like, we don’t have a fire right now, so why do we need a fire extinguisher? So we’re trying to fix it before it becomes a problem.”

New absentee ballot law

One bill could help the state make contacting voters to correct their ballots a uniform practice.

Last year, Idaho election clerks rushed to make changes to accommodate the spike in mail-in ballots due to the pandemic. After national scrutiny over mail-in ballot systems, Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane said he realized the county’s common practice of contacting voters to cure signatures or problems with their absentee ballots was not in Idaho law.

Senate Bill 1069, sponsored by Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, would require that county clerks attempt to contact the voters and give them an opportunity to fix their ballots. Remedies would have to be made by 8 p.m. on Election Day for those ballots to be counted.

“Our practice is not uniform across the state,” McGrane told lawmakers last month.

He said it was also a fraud prevention practice — if a clerk contacts voters about their ballots, they would be notified in case they didn’t vote. McGrane said it was rare.

Senators unanimously approved the new bill last month. It will now need approval from the House.

Election audits

A bill sponsored by Reps. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, and Brent Crane, R-Nampa, would grant the Idaho secretary of state broad power to order an audit within two days of a primary or general election. The bill doesn’t outline how that audit would be conducted — which is why several clerks said they opposed it.

In a public hearing on Tuesday, McGrane told lawmakers he supports the idea of an audit, but that the bill should provide more details over what the audit would entail. Deputy Secretary of State Jason Hancock came to support it.

Henrianne Westberg, of the Idaho Association of County Recorders and Clerks, told lawmakers that it grants sweeping power to the Idaho secretary of state to determine the details of those audits.

“We feel that the law should make clear what kind of audit we are allowing the secretary of state to impose on the clerks,” Westberg said Tuesday. “Years from now, to safeguard against a blanket authority, we need to be more specific.”

Crane, who chairs the House State Affairs Committee, said he preferred to hold the bill for amendments after the clerks’ testimony. He told the Statesman on Wednesday the committee will reconsider a new version of the legislation likely in the next two weeks.

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