The first thing you'll notice when you approach the office of Phil McGrane, chief deputy of the Ada County clerk, is that every inch of his door is covered with Post-it notes—scores of them. It turns out that, just before going on vacation in September, McGrane told his colleagues that they could leave questions or concerns on his door. When he returned there were one or two questions, but there were also dozens of nonsensical messages:
"Chicken is the best meat." "The all-time major league batting average is .262." "96.7 percent of all statistics are made up."
The next thing you might notice are the many trophies and ribbons for his prized barbecue sauce, but Boise Weekly asked for a few rare minutes to talk with McGrane about being the man in charge of Ada County elections—especially considering that Ada County is already on pace for record-setting early voting.
Take us back to 2005, when you came to this job. What did you know about the mechanics or science of elections?
To my benefit, [Ada County Clerk] Chris Rich looks for unique things in folks when he's hiring. My degree was in philosophy; and one of my first jobs was to recruit and train poll workers—we use up to 1,200 on Election Day. And in my time with Habitat for Humanity, we once built 40 homes in one week. So I had overseen a lot of volunteers.
What's the secret sauce of that? I don't think a lot of people are that good at recruiting and holding on to volunteers.
If the work is just busy-work, that's the quickest way to lose a volunteer. If you value their time, they'll return the favor.
How about the demographic of your volunteers?
Historically, poll-working is a very maternal system. It was easier for a woman to work all Tuesday long without interruption. A mom or grandma ran the polling place and their daughters or sisters worked with them. For years, we didn't have to recruit too often.
But the dynamics of society have changed pretty dramatically.
Now, many of our poll workers are recently retired. Unfortunately, it's a 14-hour day.
How many unique ballots might you have?
During this year's primary, we had 530. For this election we have at least 145 unique ballots.
Can you point to tangible instances of possible voter fraud in Ada County?
It has happened, not frequently.
Can you count them on your fingers.
Yes. But we pursue them pretty aggressively. Right now, there's a case that's being turned over to the Idaho attorney general. It had to do with someone who had voted but moved. And in March, someone voted in Mountain Home, drove to Boise, registered and voted in Boise on the same day. The last I heard of it, it was turned over the Elmore County Sheriff's Office.
Is that a felony?
Double voting is a felony. Attempted double voting is a misdemeanor.
Can you paint a word picture for our readers of elections headquarters? I've been in the counting area prior to election nights and I must say that it reminds me a bit of a hospital. It's almost antiseptic.
Two hundred-250 people are there on election night. You won't see purses or water bottles. All of the pens are green ink; our machines scan those differently. Your sterile description is a good one.
And a lot of windows.
Transparency, quite literally, is very important. Ballots are not too different than money; they're fairly sacred.
Let's talk about the phenomenon of early voting.
In 2012, we had 800 people on the first day. On one of the final days, there was a two-hour wait. It was pretty awesome.
How will you prepare for 2016?
It's a mission of Chris Rich to have more early voting sites around the valley.
I would be remiss if I didn't ask about your own foray into politics [McGrane lost to Lawerence Denney in the GOP primary race for Idaho secretary of state]. How surprised were you at the outcome?
I was mentally prepared. The people around me weren't.
What was the best or worst lesson learned?
I had never run for office before and sometimes that showed. But I don't have any regrets.
Was it as exhausting as one would guess?
Much more exhausting.
And the cost of running a statewide race?
The biggest costs are intangible: family sacrifice. There was a Daddy-Daughter Day at my daughter Mackenzie's pre-school. [Pause.] They gave us little cards with a sentence that read, "I love my daddy because _________." [Another pause.] Mackenzie had written, "I love my daddy because he plays with me, but he's really busy." I carried that around for the rest of the campaign.
Pardon me, but that's wonderful and heartbreaking all at once.
You asked earlier if I was prepared for the result. A week and a half before the election, Mackenzie went upstairs and got her piggy bank [longer pause]. I hope I can get through this without crying.
I have a feeling I know where this is going.
She brought her bank to my wife. [Another long pause.] I'm sorry. She knew that I needed it to win.
Let's take a moment for you to grab a Kleenex.
It was one of the few donations I didn't actually accept.
Are you paying attention to the general election race for secretary of state between Lawerence Denney and Holli Woodings?
More than anyone else.
Have you made up your mind of how you'll vote?
Not in any public fashion. I know Holli well and consider her a friend. I got to know Lawerence and, despite his public image, he was the nicest person to me on the campaign trail. That meant a great deal.
Would I be terribly surprised if I saw your name on another ballot in the future?
I wasn't deterred. We ran a great campaign. If a few circumstances had been different, I like to think that there might have been a different result. But that's the way democracy works.