Getting registered voters excited about this election year may be a fool's errand with the names Clinton and Trump at the top of the ballot. Nonetheless, Ada County's rejuvenated efforts to get more people to the polls—and an innovative way to take the polls to the people—reach far beyond Tuesday, Nov. 8, or Election Day 2016, even though, at least for now, elections officials in Ada County are expecting a high voter turnout, particularly among those who want to cast ballots early.
"There's every reason to believe that we'll see a record number of early voters," said Ada County Chief Deputy Clerk Phil McGrane, the man in charge of all things electoral for the county.
McGrane only needs to look back at 2012 and the last U.S. presidential election. Three weeks before Election Day 2012, 800 registered voters showed up at the Ada County Elections Office to cast an early ballot.
"That was the first day of 2012's early voting. It continued to build every day. It peaked on the Friday before the election, when we saw 2,000 people cast an early ballot in one day," said McGrane. "Ultimately, we saw just shy of 22,000 people vote early in that election. We had to adjust on-the-fly pretty quickly because we didn't know what to expect."
While voters were casting their ballots before Election Day, what they were doing in 2012 wasn't technically what is considered "early voting" today. Those 2012 voters were requesting absentee ballots at the elections office, filling them out, stuffing them into an envelope and handing them to an elections worker. In essence, it was not much different from requesting an absentee ballot be mailed other than they were bypassing the U.S. mail system. Today, voters get a customized ballot printed at the early voting site, they fill it out and it gets scanned into the vote database right there.
In 2016, more than two-thirds of U.S. states will offer some sort of early voting, a jump from less than one-third of states in 2008 and 2012. Ballots will be cast as early as Friday, Sept. 23 in some states, even before the first presidential debate occurs.
Idaho absentee ballot requests can be mailed to voters as early as September, but Idaho statute only allows in-person early voting three weeks prior to an election. Still, early voting in Ada County, particularly in presidential elections, is quite popular. In 2012, more than 27 percent of all Ada County ballots were cast early and, in 2008, when the presidency was an open election with no incumbent, a full 33 percent of Ada County voters cast ballots early.
"We're hopeful that early voting will continue to grow here," said McGrane. "Our neighbors in Oregon and Washington have adopted systems where all ballots are mailed in by voters and, while we hear from people all the time asking us to do the same, it's quite clear from the Idaho Legislature that we're not going in that direction. So instead, we're focusing our efforts on early voting."
This year, Ada County voters will have several options for casting early ballots. In addition to requesting an absentee ballot by mail, Ada County will operate early in-person voting, beginning Monday, Oct.17, at five locations: the Ada County Elections Office (400 N. Benjamin Lane), Boise City Hall (150 N. Capitol Blvd.), Meridian City Hall (33 E. Broadway Ave.) and the Eagle Senior Center (312 E. State St.)—but the last early voting option is the real game-changer.
"How should I describe this? We're going to be 'food truck voting.' Picture a food truck, and that's a pretty good idea of what you'll experience at our new mobile voting unit," said McGrane, with clear eagerness for rolling out the innovation, which was still being retrofitted as Boise Weekly went to print. "It's our own design: a trailer with pop-up windows and awnings. Four election workers will be inside the mobile unit. You'll go up to the window, get your customized ballot printed out, vote and have your ballot scanned right there."
McGrane said the public will be able to vote at the mobile unit when it's parked at a number of locations in the three weeks prior to Election Day.
"We're already talking to some of the area's largest employers—Micron, St. Luke's, Idaho Power—so that we can set up the mobile unit nearby to encourage more of their employees to vote," he added. "One of the high-profile areas that we're particularly excited about is the front of the Borah Post Office, right in the heart of downtown Boise—a very high foot-traffic area right in the shadow of the Idaho Statehouse."
The idea of a mobile voting unit is not rooted in Ada County's desire to encourage early voting. In fact, it is the direct result of disaster planning.
"Quite frankly, we needed to be ready in case of tragedy," said McGrane. "Think back to Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which hit just before Election Day. They had to shut down nearly half of the polling places in the New York area. I don't know what would happen if we had to do that."
But a different type of near-tragedy prompted Ada County to prepare for mobile voting sooner than later.
"It dates back to something that happened during Election Day 2013," recalled McGrane.
On Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, Boise police were summoned to a house where a person with a loaded gun was threatening suicide. Because the house was near a Boise school, the district locked down the school as a precaution for about an hour. The school was an active Ada County polling place.
"By the time we got word of the police action, the matter was resolved. Miraculously, no one showed up to vote at that polling place in that hour's time, but it begs the question: What would we have done? The number one thing we must never do is disenfranchise someone's right to vote," said McGrane. "So we started planning."
Now, three years and approximately $50,000 later, Ada County is ready to roll out its mobile polling place. It will be on standby throughout this Election Day and every primary and general election henceforth. McGrane said Ada County will be ready, at a moment's notice, to redirect voters to a secure, alternate location if a school or other public building is in lock-down. In the meantime, the public will gets its first taste of early/mobile voting on Monday, Oct. 17—along with other brick-and-mortar early polling places—through Friday, Nov. 4. An announcement of the list of locations for the mobile unit is expected in the coming weeks.
"Elections have become more expensive, beginning with the technology and staffing. So, we're constantly trying to find out efficient ways to facilitate as many voters as possible," said McGrane. "It's in everyone's interest to serve as many early voters as possible, so that we can avoid those long lines on Election Day and encourage a larger electorate."
Here's one final tip for citizens who prefer to vote on Election Day but want to avoid those longer lines: Vote during the lunch hour.
"Our new voting equipment has given us some fascinating data that has totally shattered some of our previous assumptions," said McGrane. "The bulk of voters show up after work, especially after 5 p.m. In fact, we didn't know how great that scale was. It turns out that nearly 15 percent of all our registered voters show up between 5 and 6 p.m. "
The best hour to vote, at least in Ada County, is noon to 1 p.m.
"I never would have thought that was true, but our statistics are showing us that the lunch hour is when the least people vote," said McGrane. "I guess a lot of people have been thinking that the polls were busy when, in fact, they weren't."
At whatever time voters head to the polls on Election Day, McGrane and his staff of nearly 1,400 workers will be prepared for record numbers.
"If you think of it, we're the largest event-planning operation in the state of Idaho," he said. "We have to facilitate 190,000 people. It's a bit like wedding planning on a grand scale."