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Conservative group owns two 'voter' domain names

by MADISON HARDY
Staff Writer | September 23, 2020 1:00 AM

Idahovotes.gov is a state-maintained website by the Idaho Technology Services Office, providing online voter information and registration options.

Idahovotes.com and Idahovotes.org bring users to the Idaho Freedom Foundation's 2020 Freedom Index.

A state official worries the difference between idahovotes.com and idahovotes.gov could confuse citizens, so the state is creating a new set of websites.

The Idaho Secretary of State's Office, which monitors the state elections division, became aware of the domains in May, chief deputy secretary of state Chad Houck said. After learning of the Idaho Freedom Foundation's use of the two websites, Houck and the Secretary of State reached out to the organization to obtain the handles.

"We tried to acquire the domains by purchasing and trading, but both of those offers were not met with receptivity," Houck said. "We were informed the domains were owned by a donor of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, and that owner did not want to discuss anyone owning them but the foundation."

A conservative organization, the Idaho Freedom Foundation works to influence legislation through policy advocacy. The Freedom Index is a directory developed by IFF's analysts that scores Idaho lawmakers based on their votes. The more conservative the candidate is perceived to be by IFF, the higher the score.

Dustin Hurst, IFF's communication director, said that while the foundation's website is linked to the domains, they were donated by a partner organization in Michigan. Due to their lack of ownership IFF could not sell the domains or use them to direct visitors to idahovotes.gov.

"The Secretary of State Office has contacted us about buying those domains, but they are not ours to sell," Hurst said. "We have tried to purchase them ourselves, but our partner organization isn't selling."

Use of the domains is legal, so Houck said the Secretary of State's Office is creating a new set of websites owned by the state that include .com, .org, and .gov extensions. The office had hoped to rebrand the state website before the November election, but it's awaiting confirmation by the National Registry.

Houck wouldn't release information on the new domain names, but he said the state already owns the .com and .org affiliations.

"The rebranding was 100% because of the Idaho Freedom Foundation domains," Houck said. "When two people are trying to occupy the same ground, one has to move, and since we can't force them to move, we are taking the next steps."

Houck said he was unaware of how long the Idaho Freedom Foundation has possessed the two domains. It predated he and Secretary of State Lawerence Denney's involvement with the office. He predicted it was at least five or six years ago, and most likely around 2008.

"It's certainly not typical that somebody would try and copy the .com and .org from the state," Houck said. "Obviously, in this situation, we are just handling it as we go because this is an anomaly."

Hurst said the foundation has no ulterior motives for using the domains and doesn't believe they have affected voter understanding.

"If these domains are causing confusion among voters, we haven't heard about it," Hurst said, "The only people griping are angry liberals on Twitter."

He also said the domains had no apparent effect on their online traffic, which has seen only modest increases around election times.

"There's nothing deceptive about these domains," Hurst said. "Our job is to educate voters about policies and politicians, and this is just one tool in the toolbox. Voters ought to know if their elected officials support a limited government or not."