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Idaho sets stage for election like no other

Staff Writer | August 16, 2020 1:20 AM

Idaho sets stage for election like no other

Running an elections office during a presidential election year is a daunting task under the brightest, most optimistic of conditions. Kootenai County Clerk Jim Brannon knows this as well as anyone.

“What we want this November,” Brannon told The Press, “is what we want every time: To run a safe and secure election.”

“Every time” is a challenging standard, because not every time is the same. The 2016 general election involved a complicated puzzle of moving parts and coordination for the Kootenai County Elections Office on Third Street to produce a fair election. This year, completing that task will require scalpel-like precision, speed-of-thought coordination and Herculean effort, all because of a microscopic bug called COVID-19.

As of press time, with 79 days until Election Day, nobody — Brannon or otherwise — can say with certainty how to move forward.

Three question marks

The run-up to this year’s general election lines up like dominoes waiting to tip over. The chain reaction will ultimately stop on Nov. 3, but the most noteworthy domino to fall came down in late July from over 2,400 miles away, thanks to a little nudge from, of all things, Twitter.

On July 30, President Donald Trump, his country swimming in coronavirus, fired off this tweet:

“With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”

President Trump’s Twitter account has more than 85 million followers who potentially saw the tweet. More than 244,500 people indicated they “liked” the tweet in one form or another. More than 133,800 followers re-tweeted his idea. And those who didn’t hear about the President’s hypothesis directly from their Twitter feeds were far more likely to hear about it after cable news networks, broadcast television stations and the rest of the internet spread the story.

By suggesting the Constitutionally mandated election date — a date that can only be changed by a congressional super-majority — should be delayed, another domino fell, this one landing squarely on Dan English.

English, the former Kootenai County Clerk and current Coeur d’Alene council member, wrote an Aug. 5 opinion piece for The Press. In that he noted President Trump’s by-then multiple swipes at the U.S. Postal Service, election officials nationwide and the very pillars of democracy upon which this country has managed to survive.

“Of the many things that make America great,” English wrote, “one of the most central and important is the process by which we all exercise our democracy, the voting process. We, as a country, have been a world leader in how to conduct honest, fair, reliable elections. And the reliability of our honest elections is the basis of another great strength of ours: the peaceful transfer of power.”

English further lamented the President’s questioning of the general election, noted the absence of any reasonable proof in Trump’s claims over the possibility of widespread voter fraud, and called on Brannon to determine if our May 19 primary elections — and any future elections, for that matter — were, in fact, safe.

“Here in Kootenai County,” English pointed out, “our last election, the May primary, was entirely by mail.”

A hole-in-one

If running a general election in a presidential year is a county clerk’s Olympic Games, a spring primary is his qualifying heat. If this year’s general election mimics May’s all-absentee election, the Elections Office staff has already had a dry run at what November could look like, when it faces a record-breaking absentee count.

On April 2, in an effort to protect people from attending mass gatherings during a pandemic, Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney and Gov. Brad Little declared Idaho’s primary would be all-absentee. Voters had until May 19 to cast their vote either by mail or in person at the Elections Office; by accommodating the mail, results, as it turned out, wouldn’t be posted until the final minutes of June 2.

Kootenai County voters requested more than 44,000 absentee ballots for this year’s primary, dwarfing previous records. Of those, 32,800 were filled out, returned, validated and processed. But even listing those four steps oversimplifies the painstaking process it takes to verify a citizen’s vote.

“A registered voter has to make a written request for an absentee ballot,” Kootenai County chief deputy clerk Jennifer Locke said. “We match the signature on the request to the signature on the registration card we have on file. Once those match, we will send the voter the absentee ballot to fill out; they’ll seal it and sign the back, which we’ll match again once we receive it.”

If the signatures don’t match, the ballot is removed and the citizen is contacted for confirmation. Meanwhile, sealed envelopes deemed valid are secured in a cage to remain untouched until Election Day, when it will finally be opened and counted.

It’s a process Brannon said is far more secure than a vote-by-mail election, a similar-sounding method with more dire consequences: In a vote-by-mail election, he said, ballots go out to every registered voter’s address on file, regardless of whether or not that citizen requested a ballot.

“Including to those who have recently changed addresses or have died,” Brannon said. “This means that there could be many ballots in circulation that do not have a qualified voter. As President Trump has rightly pointed out, this is a recipe for mistakes and potential voter fraud.”

Statistically speaking, Brannon is correct. In the May 19 primary in which 32,800 votes were counted, the Elections Office experienced only one instance where a person is believed to have intended to commit voter fraud by requesting a ballot under false pretenses. The suspect was denied the ballot, no vote was ever cast, and an investigation is ongoing. One out of 32,800.

For those measuring percentages of COVID-19 fatalities locally and nationwide in decimals, through this limited sample size, the chances of someone even seriously attempting voter fraud in an all-absentee election is 0.0000304878 percent. Two professional golfers playing in the same tournament have better odds of hitting holes-in-one on the same hole.

But those odds apply only if an all-absentee election happens this November, which is by no means guaranteed.

State affairs

The next domino fell Aug. 5, when Little called the Idaho Legislature into a special session. That session, which will begin the week of Aug. 24, will focus on COVID-related civil liabilities, how public health will be overseen in our schools during the pandemic, and how the November elections should proceed.

After more than a week of negotiations, the State Affairs Committee crafted possible bills for the floor to debate. One such bill Brannon and every living clerk in Idaho want to see would flatten the curve of absentee ballots by enabling elections offices to open those ballots early.

“As we experienced during the May Primary,” the clerks wrote in an open letter dated Aug. 11, “shifting to a large absentee election presents its own challenges. We do not have the ongoing infrastructure to simultaneously run an absentee election of that scale, along with an in-person election.”

Two days later, another domino fell with a resounding thud when President Trump — after months of promoting the idea that voting by mail would result in fraud — said in a press conference he was opposed to $25 billion earmarked to the USPS by America’s governors because of what he deemed would be a fraudulent election.

“They want three-and-a-half billion dollars for something that’ll turn out to be fraudulent,” he said. “That’s election money, basically. They want three-and-a-half billion dollars for the mail-in votes. Universal mail-in ballots. They want $25 billion — billion — for the Post Office. Now they need that money in order to make the Post Office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots.”

The next domino will fall Monday, when Little issues his official proclamation over the special session, which will mark the day and time the special session will gavel into session. He will then give more specifics about some of the bills, some of which have already been leaked.

While some in the Legislature are calling for eased restrictions to enable clerks to more effectively process the election, other lawmakers are calling for some form of in-person voting option, which could include voting stations throughout counties or precincts. The voting centers would use blockchain-like technology to instantly communicate with other stations across the county when a citizen votes, thus preventing multiple attempts to vote.

“As far as election centers go,” Idaho deputy Secretary of State Jason Hancock told The Press, “vote centers are as secure as it gets.”

Hancock added it’s unlikely the Secretary of State’s office will again announce an all-absentee vote in November, though he stipulated that catastrophic circumstances could change that.

Whatever the outcome of the special session, the Idaho Secretary of State’s office said both state law and county clerks — Brannon included — are up to the task.

“Idaho code has any number of different provisions to protect the voter from fraud being committed,” Hancock said. “The issue really revolves around the clerks’ ability to identify who is trying to vote, and we have full confidence in the clerks’ abilities to provide a secure election. They have our full support.”