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Election suggestion

by CRAIG NORTHRUP
Staff Writer | August 12, 2020 1:08 AM

County clerks seek early ballot access, voting centers

County clerks throughout Idaho are calling for new legislation to help ease the havoc the coronavirus pandemic has caused on election offices across the state.

“America has seen times of civil and world war, economic turbulence and pandemic,” says a letter that was signed by 43 of the state’s 44 county clerks. County clerks in Idaho oversee all of the state’s elections offices. “Through these difficult and disruptive times, elections have always been preserved. Today we face very real difficulties conducting elections in the midst of this global pandemic.”

The only county not to sign on was Camas County, whose clerk — Kori Blodgett, a civil servant at the courthouse for 29 years — died July 26.

The most recent example of challenging elections was the May 19 primary, an all-absentee event that flooded election offices across Idaho with ballots to process, pushing the actual election date out to June 2 to account for those who mailed their ballots at the last minute.

To quell the damage a similar or greater rush might duplicate, the clerks are asking legislators to pass a law empowering election offices to open and scan ballots once they arrive, rather than keep them untouched until Election Day.

Another suggestion the clerks want the Legislature to consider is the idea of county-wide voting centers, which would give easier access to voters who wish to exercise their rights in-person.

“While this massive absentee voting shift occurs, the clerks will still be running an in-person election,” said Sara Westbrook, policy director for the Idaho Association of Counties, the organization that steered the drafting of the letter, “which comes with a different set of challenges some of which can be alleviated with the addition of vote centers that would allow voters to vote at any vote center in their county with on-demand ballots.”

The clerks added that even without the hardships COVID-19 is placing on voter and election officials alike, the job of maintaining elections is far from easy. But with the pandemic still gripping Idaho, the clerks came out in unified support for legislation to ease the burden on election offices across the state.

The Idaho Legislature will meet in a special session to debate, among other issues, how to hold elections during the pandemic. While some are calling for all-absentee again, others are hoping for in-person opportunities to vote. The legislative text that will be introduced is still being workshopped by lawmakers before Gov. Brad Little calls the special session to order Aug. 24.

Regardless of the language, the clerks are asking for leeway to operate more effectively as November looms, something that Kootenai County clerk Jim Brannon said would help his office as the new election approaches.

“I’m hoping what comes out of it will be direction to run a safe, secure election,” Brannon told The Press.

The group of clerks, communicating through the Idaho Association of Counties, estimates that — rather than the usual 10 percent of Idahoans voting absentee — the November election could see as much as 75 percent of voters use absentee ballots, a number that could swamp elections offices without the legislation the clerks are proposing.

“As we experienced during the May Primary, shifting to a large absentee election presents its own challenges,” the letter reads. “We do not have the ongoing infrastructure to simultaneously run an absentee election of that scale, along with an in-person election.”

“The county clerks in Idaho are united over the need for a special session to address elections legislation,” Westbrook said. “This call to action gives voters an inside view of why new legislation is needed and what to expect for the historic November 2020 election.”

With a huge number of absentee ballots expected as well as running in-person voting, Idaho’s counties expected significant shortages of poll workers, many of whom fall in the high-risk category for COVID-19. That is posing challenges for county clerks, Bonner County Clerk Michael Rosedale said.

“I don’t know if we’re going to be able to get our older poll workers and I don’t know if I want to subject them to working in a polling place,” he said of the potential risk posed by the virus.

“We’re going to have an enormous amount of people doing absentee ballots and, in addition to that, we also have to do a regular election with polling places,” Rosedale said. “Our counties are simply not staffed, we can’t handle that.”

The two-pronged effort is a “way that we can let everybody vote,” Rosedale said.

Rosedale said there is a worry that, come Election Day, for one reason or another poll workers are not able to show up, leaving voters in that precinct who did not sign up for an absentee ballot unable to vote. By consolidating polling sites into regional centers, voters could go to the one that is the most convenient and be assured of being able to vote.

The polling centers would allow the counties to print, on demand, the specific ballot for each individual voter, Rosedale said. Because each center would be connected, and elections staff could be at each site to troubleshoot any confusion or problems, there would only be one vote per person.

“They’re just as sacred, they’re just as protected,” Rosedale said.

Rosedale said he and the state’s other clerks want to assure residents that voter safety is paramount and they can be assured Idaho’s statutes make the process safe and secure.

“That really is our goal,” he added. “We want everybody to vote. And we want to make sure everybody has full trust in the outcome.”

Election Day is Nov. 3.

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Hagadone News Network writer Caroline Lobsinger contributed to this story.