Cost-Per-Vote in Primary Could Be Historic 

"Just look at the television ads and follow the money. This is one of the biggest we've ever seen."

Ada County Chief Deputy Clerk Phil McGrane, who oversees Idaho's largest elections operations, doesn't soft-pedal the historic possibilities of the Tuesday, May 15, primary.

"It's a turning point in our state for both parties," he said. "Just looking at the race for governor. It doesn't matter whether you're a Democrat or Republican. These are really big decisions."

Size does have a lot to do with the coming vote. Not the size of the vote, but the size of the campaign war chests.

"Despite this being a primary election, this may end up being the most expensive election in Idaho history," said McGrane. "Just look at the television ads and follow the money. This is one of the biggest we've ever seen."

Most pundits aren't expecting a major turnout at the polls, meaning the cost-per-vote may also head to the record books. In Ada County, for example, there are nearly 225,000 registered voters, but no one thinks anywhere near that number will cast votes May 15. The general consensus is that voter turnout could be as low as 25 percent.

"If we're really lucky, it might bump a percent or two higher, but it will most probably be in the low- to mid-20s," said McGrane. "The unfortunate trend is—and I've looked back as far as 1980—we're at a steady 2 percent decline in participation."

McGrane would like nothing more than to drive those numbers up. He and his colleagues are doing everything possible to improve availability and ease of access to the polls.

"Unfortunately, this will not even be remotely close to a big election. Voters—if they show up at all—participate in general elections and usually don't show up in the primaries," he said. "This is a huge election and we truly want people to weigh in."

That's why, for example, Ada County has added five new precincts, bringing the total number of polling places to 150. But it's not as if McGrane and his colleagues simply dropped five new precincts onto the map. The readjustment impacted the boundaries of 16 existing precincts, meaning McGrane and his team had to communicate with all of the registered voters in those precincts regarding their new polling places.

Ada County residents have come to expect early voting opportunities, and for the upcoming primary, early voting begins Monday, April 30, and continues Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., at Boise City Hall, Meridian City Hall and the Ada County Elections Offices until Friday, May 11. Additionally, there will be a Saturday opportunity for early voting at all three locations on May 5, also from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

"During our last election, we discovered that, of all the locations, Meridian City Hall saw the highest level of early-voter participation," said McGrane. "It's a great opportunity to help alleviate some of the lines on election day. And again, it's all about greater access."

Food Truck Voting

click to enlarge votegraphicbar.jpg

McGrane has a few tricks up his sleeve, one of which is Ada County's now-iconic mobile voting trailer, which he has described as "food truck" voting. Boise Weekly first reported on the idea of "food truck" voting in August, 2016. NPR and media outlets across the U.S. picked up on the story and the era of a colorful, mobile polling place was born.

"What have we learned in the two years since we began? A lot," said McGrane. "For instance, we originally thought we could just pull up to a large business and plug right into their outlets. Well, we tripped the breakers at Micron. That was probably one of our biggest lessons."

The mobile voting unit (now complete with its own power generator) will return to Micron on Tuesday, May 8. Other visits will include stops in Eagle, Garden City, Kuna and Star (see the complete schedule on page 7).

"I'm very proud to say that this past year, the City of Denver rolled out their own version of a mobile unit, very similar to ours," said McGrane. "So, we've had a few conversations with them. And officials in Arizona have reached out to us about the idea."

Vote Integrity

At no time in our nation's history has there been more conversation about the integrity of America's voting systems. With President Donald Trump making accusations of voter fraud and reports that some voting machines are hackable, more citizens are asking: "How safe is my vote?"

"We've got an air gap in our system," said McGrane.

That means there's not just a theoretical gap, but a true gap of air between Ada County's voting systems and the internet. In order for anyone to get data onto or from Ada County election computers, they must have physical access to the computers, which are locked in rooms that even McGrane can't access.

Vote integrity is a big part of David Levine's job. With years of experience managing elections in Richmond, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., Levine was hired last September as the new Ada County Elections Director.

"I'm fortunate to help oversee the administration of elections for one of the fastest growing counties in the fastest-growing states in the nation," said Levin. "I love this job. One day, I'm working on making voter registrations as timely and effective as possible. Another day, I'm helping to design a ballot."

On yet another day, he may be helping to instill integrity in high-profile elections on the other side of the world. Levine was a recent member of a U.S. delegation tasked with observing the April 11 presidential election in Azerbaijan. It was the latest in a series of global assignments as an observer, including national elections in Albania, Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Republic of Macedonia.

"It gives you a real appreciation for just how fortunate we are to live in a country with a fair election process that is widely respected," said Levine. "And Ada County has had, I think, a process with a great deal of integrity. An interesting example of that is our paper-based system. That's critical from a security perspective, especially if there's a recount. Then, we have ballot cameras all throughout our warehouse, where you have the ability, at any point in time, to click and see what we're doing."

When asked if it's possible to hack into any part of the electoral process of Ada County, Levine said the likelihood is "extremely low."

"I would be happy to put our process up against just about anyone else's," he said.

Bringing Out the Vote

ACLU-Idaho sees the Tuesday, May 15, primary election as just as important as any other, but it has no desire to lean in a single political direction.

"You'll never see the ACLU say, 'Vote for this person,' or 'Vote for this party.' Our focus is to move outside of the partisan conversations and focus on the issues," said Kathy Griesmyer, ACLU-Idaho public policy strategist. "The questions we can help with are: 'What does a governor, a state treasurer or local legislator have control over in your life?' If this is something you really care about, we want to encourage you to participate and we want to make it easy for you to do that."

ACLU-Idaho also spends a fair amount of effort reminding voters that there are still mythical barriers preventing some people from voting. For example, a good many Idahoans still think photo identification is required to vote.

"If you're already registered, you don't need to present a photo ID at the polls. You can sign a personal identification affidavit, so that's always an option and shouldn't prevent anyone from voting," said Maria Kennedy, ACLU-Idaho advocacy fellow.

Another perceived barrier impacts voters most candidates might not consider a target demographic: those with previous criminal convictions.

"I hear this all the time. Someone telling me, 'I can't vote.' I ask, 'Are you done with your parole?' They say, 'Yeah, I've been done for 15 years.' I answer, 'That's 15 years of voting,'" said Griesmyer. "We educate folks so that everybody who is eligible knows what their rights are and feels empowered to go to the polls."

Griesmyer said when she talks to colleagues at ACLU chapters in other states, Idaho compares favorably when it comes to voter access.

Over at the Ada County Clerk's offices, McGrane said he and his colleagues are continuously talking about increasing that access. Online voter registration, early polling places and "food truck voting" certainly help, but it still comes down to voter engagement.

"I'm really hoping that the race to see who Idaho's next governor will be helps turnout," said McGrane. "But it's unfortunate. You see less people registering and less people participating. So, one of the things you'll see us continue to work on is access: making it convenient, expanding our early voting operations, increasing the number of precincts. We'll do what it takes."


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