Analysis: In keeping with the times, Idaho holds an unpredictable primary election

Just in case you need more uncertainty in your life, let’s talk about the 2020 Idaho primary.

Reflecting the times, Idaho is holding an unpredictable primary. Candidates have to campaign differently. Voters will cast their ballots differently. “Everything has changed,” says Jaclyn Kettler, a political science professor at Boise State University.

Let’s sort through some variables.

The all-absentee election. The coronavirus pandemic has closed all of Idaho’s polling places, turning the primary into a vote-by-mail event. And if you want to vote, the clock is ticking. You need to request a ballot from your county clerk or the secretary of state’s office by Tuesday. Then you need to return it to the clerk’s office. In order for your ballot to count, the clerk must receive it by 8 p.m. on June 2.

If this process is dissuading would-be voters, you wouldn’t know it from talking to Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane. He has hired temporary staffers to help handle ballot requests — and on Tuesday, he called in from the elections office as he was helping to process requests. “We’re drowning in them.”

As of Tuesday, Ada County has issued 82,540 absentee ballots. That exceeds the 78,796 ballots cast in 2018 — when Republicans and Democrats were settling big-budget and high-profile gubernatorial primaries. And it far exceeds the 35,363 ballots cast in 2016.

In other words, turnout won’t necessarily crater during a vote-by-mail election. But who knows? More on that later.

What we know about primary voters (and absentee voters). First, let’s keep expectations in check. Turnout is always lower for primary elections. Two years ago, less than a third of registered voters cast a ballot. In 2013, turnout was a paltry 23 percent.

Primaries tend to bring out loyalists on both sides of the political spectrum. And keep in mind that Republicans still hold a closed primary, with ballots available only to voters who declare party membership. That process sometimes — but doesn’t always — favor the more hardline candidate on the ballot.

In past elections, absentee voters tended to skew older, and they tend to be loyalists who get more of their voter information from their party, Kettler said. But now, of course, absentee voting is the only game in town.

The new rules of campaigning. Candidates can’t use the tried-and-true methods of winning an election — tactics they use, said Kettler, because they work. Door-to-door campaigning? Town halls and neighborhood meetings? Those are so not 2020.

In the absence of retail politics, name ID could be even more important. Same goes for money, which allows a candidate to pay for mailers, yard signs or social media advertising.

As a test case, consider a House primary in Eastern Idaho’s legislative District 34, pitting first-term incumbent Britt Raybould against former state Rep. Ron Nate. Both Rexburg Republicans have name ID (although Nate is a former legislator for a reason; he lost in the 2018 primary). And if it comes down to money, Nate has raised $17,323 this year — not a small sum for a legislative primary — while Raybould has hauled in $33,824.

A power struggle goes to the polls. Remember the Legislature’s House divided in 2020? A chamber that deadlocked on higher education budget bills? A House that narrowly voted to adjourn for the session, amidst a global pandemic, because conservatives wanted to stay in town to preserve their right to override a gubernatorial veto?

That tension between moderate and conservative Republicans is nothing new — but it felt even more palatable this session. And several primaries could affect the House GOP’s tenuous balance of power, shaping the makeup of committees such as House Education and the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, and maybe affecting House leadership elections. Several Senate primaries could affect that chamber’s ideological makeup, as well.

These primaries will test where Republican voters want to go — toward the center, or toward the right.

(In the next few days, I’ll take a deeper look at the legislative primaries; watch for it on my blog.)

The volatile voter mood. When you get right down to it, there’s only one overriding issue, and you didn’t need to read this far to learn what it is. The coronavirus pandemic is overshadowing the debate over pretty much any issue, while reshaping the way Idaho voters think about public health, public education, taxes and economic policy.

Not convinced? Remember January, and the start of the legislative session, when growth was a big talking point? Yeah, those were the days.

Current events could make for a raw, unpredictable electorate. “There’s a heightened focus on government right now,” McGrane said. “The ballot box is where people express their views.”

But it’s still a lackluster ballot. The primary could be a referendum on the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, but it isn’t a perfect one. President Trump isn’t on the ballot until November. Gov. Brad Little won’t reappear on a ballot before 2022.

What Idaho voters have before them is a mishmash. A few congressional primaries that haven’t made many headlines. Some intriguing and important legislative primaries, but not in every corner of the state. Some scattered school bond issues and levies — with several big-dollar bond issues on hold for now.

Requesting a ballot is one thing. Finding the motivation to fill it out and send it back is another. Ada County has received more than 27,000 completed ballots so far — about a typical return rate — but what will the actual vote counts look like when the tally is announced on June 2?

One more variable, in an election of variables.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.



Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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