Dismal turnout rekindles bill talk

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Staff Writer

COEUR d'ALENE — The 5.7 percent voter turnout in Tuesday's local general election got Mary Souza's legislative blood pumping.

The Coeur d'Alene Republican senator, who has twice pitched election consolidation proposals in Boise only to have them not get enough support to become law, said Tuesday's dismal number has added fuel to her fire to continue her pursuit.

"I'm planning on bringing a bill forward for the third year," she said. "I am working with people in Boise as we speak so we can have a running start (for the next session)."

The turnout for Tuesday's election, which featured highway, hospital, library and water district races along with a write-in challenge for a Post Falls school board seat, was one of the lowest, if not the lowest, in Kootenai County history, county officials said.

Two years ago, the May election drew 8 percent voter turnout.

"Some people have said (Tuesday's vote) was only a 2-percent drop, but it's also a quarter (of the 2015 number)," she said.

November general elections, meanwhile, have typically drawn a turnout of more than 50 percent. It was 87 percent during the presidential election last November.

Souza has advocated for combining the school board elections in May with the general elections in November when more voters turn out.

"School board elections are critical to the success of our children's education," she said. "Those school board members make critical decisions about the safety of our children and how money is spent."

She said people are in tune with politics in November — not on the verge of summer in May.

While her efforts have focused on school board elections, she said she'd be open to discussions of consolidating the other May races as well. However, she also believes election changes have the best chance of passing if they're one step at a time.

Opponents have said consolidation would cause voter fatigue of having more decisions to make in November; that low turnout is restricted to specific areas of the state; and that the move is politically motivated.

But Souza said her research from the May 2015 elections indicates low voter turnout is a statewide issue, with one county in the southeastern part of the state posting a 1 percent turnout.

"Half of the counties had a turnout of under 10 percent," she said. "It is not a local problem."

Souza said school board elections in May may serve the purposes of education groups who support the status quo, but she doesn't believe they support education in general.

She said developing a coalition of parents who want election consolidation is being explored to gain more support in Boise.

Becky Funk, a local campaign consultant, said she was disappointed but not surprised at Tuesday's low voter turnout based on watching the number of absentee ballot requests.

"The school board races were uncontested in Coeur d'Alene, so there just wasn't a lot of excitement about this election," she said.

"A surprising number of people who I know who typically vote didn't realize an election had taken place. Maybe they didn't read the newspaper. The candidates also didn't do as much to get their name out as during the primary and general elections."

Funk said consolidation is a great idea, including in the interest of saving taxpayer money.

Poll workers make $150 per day and judges, who are in charge of the polls, receive $190. Each poll typically has three to five workers.

"Staffing every polling place is a lot for having 5.7 percent of the voters show up," Funk said.

Funk said it's disappointing so few people voted on key local positions.

"I wish what we could get across to people is that the closer it is to home [with political positions and races], the more influence we as citizens have on how things are done," she said.

"It may not be as fun as a presidential election, but citizens have the most influence on local elections. The people who are running are our friends and neighbors and, as a result, we are able to hold them more accountable."

Kootenai County Clerk Jim Brannon said he's taking a neutral position on the election consolidation debate.

"It's a legislative issue, not a clerk's issue," he said. "Clerks are not allowed to state their opinion of the election laws. We just follow them. My own personal opinion does not apply and it does not matter."

Instead, Brannon simply referred to the raw numbers from the election: 4,323 votes cast of 76,096 registered voters.

Souza has also advocated for making voting for school board candidates districtwide rather than allowing only voters who live in the candidates' zone vote for that race. Her latest bill allowed individual districts to make that decision because some larger districts oppose districtwide voting.

Souza said she is not a fan of mail-in voting that some states have because she doesn't believe Idaho is ready for that technology-wise to ensure some of the votes are not fraudulent.

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