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Idaho election officials work on alternatives to in-person voting for May primary

Amid statewide coronavirus outbreaks, Idaho is considering the use of absentee ballots and other voting alternatives for the upcoming presidential primary election.

BOISE, Idaho — Editor's note: The above video is a preview from our upcoming Viewpoint episode that discusses how six feet of distance between you and others can slow the spread of coronavirus.

Secretary of State Lawerence Denney and the 44 Idaho county clerks are discussing possible changes to the upcoming May 19 primary election, amid concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus.

On Wednesday, Denney released a statement saying the state would be encouraging voters to request absentee ballots for the election. The same day, the Idaho Democratic Party released a letter asking Gov. Brad Little and Denney to hold an all absentee ballot election.

Absentee voting requires the voter to request a vote-by-mail ballot. An all-mail ballot election means the counties would automatically mail ballots to all registered voters.

Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane said he, the other county clerks and the Secretary of State's Office have been looking at a number of options for the May 19 election. He said he expects to "have clarity" as early as Monday on what the election will look like.

McGrane said the group is looking at consolidating polling locations, mailing out absentee ballot requests to voters and what authority the state has to delay the election. 

"Everyone has watched other states looking at delaying elections," McGrane said Thursday. "We don't know what we can do by the law, but we are having conversations as we look at what the options are. I have been on phone with the clerks and secretary of state to look at best options."

The Idaho Democratic Party, in its letter, urges all counties to send ballot request forms to all registered voters and the secretary of state to put in place an online absentee ballot request form.

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"Under the current and projected conditions involving COVID-19, it does not seem viable for Idaho to hold enfranchising and meaningful elections in May if those elections are held in-person at regular polling places," the Democrats' letter said. "Many of Idaho’s poll workers are older adults who have been advised by the CDC to remain at home in order to avoid exposure to COVID-19."

McGrane said it looks like the state will need to have at least one polling place per county.

While attempting to make some changes, McGrane said the group is coming up on an approaching deadline; April 3 is the federal and state deadline to mail absentee ballots for military and overseas voters.

"That is a week away," he said.

He said some counties are printing absentee ballots in preparation for the election.

"One thing that makes this election challenging is this is a primary nomination election, meaning there are various ballot choices" — such as a Republican or Democratic ballot. "So before we can mail ballots, we have to know what ballots to mail," McGrane said. "We are working on different ideas on how to streamline and get info to voters on how to obtain the correct ballot."

Another challenging piece to absentee voting in Idaho is there has never been a significant statewide push to encourage the vote-by-mail option, McGrane said.

In Ada County, he said, voting by mail has declined, and early voting has picked up steam.

The county in 2008 mailed forms to voters inviting them to request mail in ballots, McGrane said. That year, the county saw its peak number of absentee voters.

"So we know if we can mail a form to people, we can get participation," he said.

McGrane said the clerks and secretary of state met with the Senate State Affairs Committee this session to push through emergency legislation for the election, but the plan did not go forward. 

So far, McGrane said the county clerks have:

  • Moved polling places out of any senior or assisted living homes.
  • Placed orders for stick-on envelopes that do not require people to lick the postage.
  • Encouraged voters to request an absentee ballot.

Canyon County Clerk Chris Yamamoto could not be reached for comment.

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