Constituent concern on voting in person was the driving factor for legislation sponsored by Dist. 7A Rep Priscilla Giddings in the special session that was signed into law late last month.
As per House Bill 1 (HB1), “…every elector shall always be provided the opportunity to vote in person in an election, notwithstanding any declaration of emergency, extreme emergency, or disaster emergency by the governor.”
Gov. Brad Little called for a special legislative session in August to look at changes to election laws in advance of voting in November. HB1 was one of two election bills passed in session, along with a third that shields business and schools from coronavirus-related lawsuits.
“I like to think of HB1 as a voter's insurance policy against unforeseen disasters,” said Rep. Giddings.
Giddings said that after Little called for a special session, “several constituents contacted me with their concerns about not being able to vote in person for the November 2020 election. In particular, they asked me to oppose universal vote by mail. I couldn't imagine universal vote by mail being adopted in Idaho, but Idahoans had just been subjected to an all-absentee election during the primary in May, so their concern was legitimate.”
Giddings said she heard dozens of horror stories from voters across the state who had difficulty with absentee voting during the primary.
“Some people never received a ballot even though they asked multiple times, and others submitted a ballot only to find out that it had never been recorded,” she said.
Giddings said the only reason the governor was able to force an all-absentee election was that during an extreme emergency he is granted extra power.
“During the initial stages of the COVID outbreak, he used those special powers to suspend six Idaho statutes regarding elections,” she said. “If another round of COVID hit our state and we entered into another extreme emergency during the November election, I didn't want Idahoans to miss out on the opportunity to vote in person.”
Giddings said it became clear state code needed to be amended so election laws would be protected during an extended state of emergency. However, a problem was the governor's proclamation requested the legislature only address three pieces of legislation relating to COVID 19 and in-person voting was not one of them.
“Just a couple of days before the session, the attorney general provided legislators an opinion stating other pieces of legislation could be considered if they fell under the same topic as those presented in the governor's proclamation, not just his requested legislation, one of which was elections,” she said, after which Giddings requested HB1 be introduced in the House State Affairs Committee.
“Overall, the reaction has been very positive,” Giddings said. “Only two out of 105 legislators voted against it. People seem to be reassured that they will be able to vote in person, just as they have in years past.”
At the local level, Idaho County Clerk Kathy Ackerman said as polling places will be open for the Nov. 3 general election, there will be no impact to voters this fall.
“But let’s say we rewound this, and this legislation were put in place prior to the May primary,” she said. “What would that have looked like? There were numerous challenges in May, not the least of which was the unknown impact, both locally and statewide, of a pandemic.”
For the May primary, the courthouse was not open for early voting, as is usually the case, she said. HB1 would require that a location, at least one, be found that is accessible to the public for voting, period.
“That location might be in Grangeville or Elk City,” she said. “Or, it might be a table set up in front of the courthouse if none of the usual polling places will allow access.”
HB1 checks the box for ensuring availability of in-person voting, she said, but it doesn’t require it will be conveniently located to where voters reside.
Ackerman did raise a question on whether Giddings had sought input from county clerks on the legislation, as that oversight in the past at the state level has been an issue of consternation for local officials.
“Although there wasn't much time to get everyone's opinion, I was able to discuss it with the Idaho Association of Counties and they didn't raise any objections from the county level,” Giddings said. “The pace of the extraordinary session was expedited compared to regular sessions.”