Analysis: Voters showed up, but they also hunkered down

In the midst of a global economic downturn, Idaho’s largest school district turned to voters for help.

But voters said no. They turned down a supplemental property tax levy — after they’d passed levies every couple of years for the better part of a decade. The vote left school administrators staring at a multimillion-dollar hole in their budget.

The year was 2011. History repeated itself this week. 

Tuesday’s failed supplemental levy will likely force the West Ada School District to make some hard choices again. In 2011, the district eliminated more than 60 teaching positions and six days from the school calendar.  Tuesday’s outcome will have a tangible impact on students and educators — and it might also offer a glimpse into the mindset of Idaho voters.

Two dominant themes emerged from Idaho’s first-ever vote-by mail primary. First, a startling 38.5 percent of registered voters showed up — virtually, at least, in keeping with 2020. Second, voters leaned to the right. Due to unexpectedly high voter turnout or economic fears — or, more likely, a combination of the two — it was a tough night for some school leaders and a solid night for some conservative hardliners.

Fifteen school districts sought bond issues or levies. Six measures failed. And, notably, that list includes five of the six largest proposals on the ballot Tuesday.

Plenty of variables were at play, of course. Bond issues failed in Jerome and Ririe, but getting two-thirds support for a bond issue is never a gimme. Supplemental levies failed in Middleton and Mountain View, two embattled districts dealing with revolving-door leadership turnover. A Swan Valley plant facilities levy failed — for the fourth time in a year.

None of these factors explain what happened in West Ada.

In March 2018, an identical two-year, $28 million levy passed with 69 percent support. This time around, only 46 percent of voters supported the levy, falling short of the simple majority it needed to pass.

No question, the economy was a factor. After years of meteoric commercial and residential growth — and, of course, the enrollment pressures that come with it — times are changing in West Ada. Trustees said as much in March, when they decided, wisely, to postpone a $69.5 million bond issue.

But you can’t assess this election result without addressing turnout.

The March 2018 levy was a standalone election. Barely 15,000 people voted.

This year’s levy coincided with a primary. More than 46,000 people voted.

In the Treasure Valley’s red suburbia, a primary draws a larger and more conservative voting cohort. It’s that simple.

Quinn Perry, the Idaho School Boards Association’s policy and government affairs director, said turnout might have been a factor in West Ada. But she didn’t want to use it as an excuse. “You want high turnout,” she said.

Wednesday’s school election results left Idaho Education Association President Layne McInelly disappointed. “These results underscore the need for substantially increased state investments in Idaho’s public schools,” he said.

Easier said than done.

Not only is Gov. Brad Little telling school leaders to brace for more budget cuts during a coronavirus-driven downturn, but any budget bills will have to navigate through a Legislature that might be even more conservative in 2021.

Four House incumbents lost — and those changes alone seem likely to move the House to the right. The hardline conservatives lost one of their own, Idaho Falls Republican Bryan Zollinger. But two other hardliners, former state Reps. Ron Nate of Rexburg and Karey Hanks of St. Anthony, ousted moderate incumbents.

This election again put the rift between the Idaho Freedom Foundation and mainstream Republicans on open display. The Freedom Foundation came under fire — critics included Melaleuca Inc. billionaire CEO and perennial campaign donor Frank VanderSloot and the Boise group Idaho Conservatives. Still, several foundation-aligned incumbents won relatively easily this week and the foundation’s president claimed victory Wednesday.

“Voters in Idaho have potentially produced the most conservative House of Representatives in the state’s history,” Wayne Hoffman said in a Facebook post.

There’s no guarantee what the Legislature will look like, exactly, until after November. But this week’s primary results could affect the balance of power within the House GOP caucus — which could ultimately shape the makeup of the House Education Committee and the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, and House Speaker Scott Bedke could face more pushback from the right. “That probably is not going to lighten up,” Boise State University political science professor Jaclyn Kettler said.

But while the House could be more conservative in 2021, the Senate more or less stayed the course. No incumbents lost. Freedom Foundation-aligned Rep. Christy Zito of Hammett won the nomination in one open Senate race, while more mainstream Republicans prevailed in races to succeed President Pro Tem Brent Hill and Education Committee Chairman Dean Mortimer.

This was an unusual election, and not just because of the vote-by-mail mechanics. A sudden global health crisis and an abrupt economic downturn certainly played into the voter mood. The same goes, perhaps to a lesser extent, to the nationwide protests and vigils highlighting racial equality, which unfolded during the final days of Idaho’s voting cycle. An unprecedented backdrop.

There’s always danger in drawing broad conclusions from local elections — such as legislative races or school ballot measures. Local decisions are independent of each other. In this election, though, the results seemed to fall into a few patterns.

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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