Election Reform


1. Introduction

Government of the people, by the people, for the people. With those words, Abraham Lincoln closed his Gettysburg Address and gave us one of the most lasting and compelling formulations of what the American Revolution had accomplished. To fulfill its fundamental character our system of government requires an election system that produces elected officials who are representative of us as a people and are responsive to our concerns.

The driving motivation for the founding and growth of the The Common Interest is a concern that our government is falling short of its promise to be of, by, and for us. As special interests and extreme partisans exert increasing power, our government becomes less responsive to the broad citizenry—the people—it is supposed to serve.

This year several proposals go to the heart of this fundamental concern by proposing election reforms. For a government by the people, no issue is more fundamental than how we choose those who will represent us. Before we get into the heart of the matter, though, we turn first to a few instructions for completing the process.

2. Instructions

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Thank you for participating. We look forward to hearing your positions on these issues. We turn now to a brief investigation of the challenges the increasing influence of special interests and extreme partisans pose to our system followed by a review of the proposed election reforms that aim to address these problems in a variety of ways.

3. The Influence of Special Interests and Extreme Partisans

While special interests and extreme partisans arguably exert far greater influence at the national level, there is plenty of cause for concern here in Idaho. Let’s start with the influence of special interests. There are more than 300 registered lobbyists in Idaho giving us a ratio of three lobbyists to every Legislator. Over 150 belong to Idaho Legislative Advisers, the association of lobbyists, which is more than double the 75 who were members of that association in 1985. Increasingly, money is the key for candidates to statewide office and special interests are key to raising big money. In the 2006 election, the candidates for governor raised more than $4.2 million in contributions, not counting expenditures by groups “independent” of the campaigns. It’s difficult to raise this much money from the small individual donations that common citizens can make. Contributions of $200 or less by individuals accounted for only $462,000, or 11%, of the more than $4.2 million raised. For the other 89% of their total contributions, gubernatorial candidates depended on organizations and on individuals who could afford and were interested in giving more than $200.

The influence of extreme partisans is also concerning. The more deeply you believe something, the more motivated you are to do something about it. That basic truism is confirmed by research on political involvement. At every level of involvement—including who votes, volunteers, writes checks, and runs for party or government office—the stronger someone’s ideological views the more likely they are to participate. Those with very liberal and very conservative views are a small minority of Idahoans. Although the latest BSU public policy survey indicates that only 4% of Idahoans describe themselves as very liberal and only 16% as very conservative, those groups exert influence far beyond their numbers. National polls show that about 60% – 65% of Americans consider themselves moderate and independent-minded in their views and feel frustrated by the increasing partisanship of our politcs.

Who votes is one important example of the disproportionate influence of the small minorities with strong ideological views. In addition to confirming that the stronger ones ideological views, the more likely one is to turnout to vote, research also confirms that this effect becomes more pronounced the lower voter turnout is. As voter turnout decreases, it is the moderate, independent-minded majority who dropout most while the hard right and hard left turnout no matter what. Primary elections are a particularly important part of the story of the disproportional influence of extremists because primary turnout is far lower than turnout in general elections. Over the last 30 years in Idaho, turnout for general elections has averaged over 60% while turnout in primaries has averaged just over 30%.

Although it has always been the case that the passionate, ideological minority participate at higher rates than the more than the independent and moderate majority, research confirms that we’re in an era in which the hard right in the Republican Party and the hard left in the Democratic Party have gained even more influence, even though the common citizens of our state and nation are more moderate and independent-minded then ever. Voter turnout in primaries is a particularly important aspect of these developments. Idaho turnout in primaries averaged 34% in 1976-1986, dropped to 31% for 1988-1996, and to 29% for 1998-2006. In the 2006 primary, turnout was less than 26%.

It’s one thing to diagnose the problem that our political process is too responsive to special interests and extreme partisans and not responsive enough to common citizens. It’s quite another to find practical, effective solutions. Can election reforms help make our government more truly by and for us? We now turn to a review of the evidence regarding several major election reforms.

4. Vote by Mail

The 44 county clerks in Idaho are unanimously supporting a “vote by mail” proposal that is also endorsed by Secretary of State Ben Ysursa (Republican) and by former Governors Phill Batt (Republican) and Cecil Andrus (Democrat). In a vote by mail system, like that used in Oregon, voters complete ballots that have been mailed to them and then return the ballot by mail. The bill sponsored by the clerks, House Bill 94, would give counties and cities the option of adopting a vote-by-mail system but would not require it. This bill passed the House State Affairs Committee on a 11-7 vote in spite of strong opposition from the Republican leadership team in the House. Several days later the Chairman of that committee said that new problems with the bill had come to light that had not been considered in the hearing. He successfully moved to have the bill sent back to the committee where it now awaits another hearing. We consider the new concerns below.

If a given county or city adopted vote by mail, they would send every registered voter “by nonforwardable mail an official ballot with a return identification envelope and a secrecy envelope.” These would be mailed out 14 to 18 days before election day. The voter can then complete the ballot, place it in the secrecy envelope, place that within the self-addressed return identification ballot, sign it, put a stamp on it, and put it in the mail. The ballot must be received by 8:00 pm on election day. Voters also have an option of delivering their ballot directly to the office of the county clerk or dropping it at other designated deposit places in the county up until 8:00 pm on election day. Non-registered voters can also register and then immediately receive a ballot. They also have until 8:00 pm on election day to return it. You can see more details about this proposal, including a video on the steps in the process, at the following website: www.idahovotesbymail.com

The proponents of voting by mail argue that one of the main reasons Idaho should adopt it is that it will significantly increase voter turnout. Higher voter turnout, accordingly, could make our government more responsive to common citizens by lessening the problem of the disproportionate influence of extreme partisans when turnout is low, particularly in primaries.

So what does the evidence say about vote by mail’s ability to increase voter turnout? Three rigorous studies that examined Oregon’s experience soon after they went to vote by mail statewide were published in peer-reviewed journals . Karp and Banducci in 2000; and Southwell and Burchett in 2000; and Berinsky, Burns, and Traugott in 2001 all found that it increased voter turnout significantly, in some cases by as much as 10%. However, Gronke, Galanes-Rosenbaum, and Miller presented the preliminary findings from the most recent study on voter turnout at a conference just this January and it provided less positive support. Their investigation included the elections in Oregon since those that came soon after Oregan went state-wide with vote by mail and found a much smaller overall increase in voter turnout attributable to vote by mail. It appears that part of the initial boost was a novelty effect that has worn off some over time, particularly in general elections.

Nevertheless, both the Berinsky et al earlier study and the recent Gronke et al study indicate that vote by mail does increase voter turnout in low profile elections such as primaries and local elections. Since low voter turnout in primaries is a major part of why we end up with elected officials who are more extreme than we are as a people, the evidence suggests that vote by mail helps reduce this problem.

Additional research shows that any increase in voter turnout does not change the partisan outcomes of elections. Republicans and Democrats have the same chances of winning or losing with or without vote by mail. However, to the extent that vote by mail does increase voter turnout, it tends to turnout moderate and independent-minded voters somewhat more again suggesting the vote by mail may make it somewhat easier for moderate and independent-minded candidates who are more representative of the electorate at large to prevail.

Another potential effect of vote by mail on how representative our elected officials are involves the question of ballot security and secrecy. The county clerks and the Secretary of State argue that vote by mail elections are more secure and less prone to fraud than traditional polling place elections. Under our current system, a voter must sign the poll book at the polling place to get a ballot. Although the signatures can be checked against the signature on that voter’s registration card, this is rarely done. The poll workers don’t have access to the registration card signatures at the polling place. So signatures are checked only when there is reason for suspicion, and even then, it is checked only after the fact. Although the fraud may be subsequently investigated, and, if the person is found, they may be prosecuted, the ballot they completed still counts in the election because nothing in the system connects a given ballot with a given voter’s signature.

In the proposed vote by mail system, each voter must sign a secure envelope in which they enclose their ballot. Before the ballot is ever counted, the election workers check the signature on the envelope against the signature on the registration card, which are now available electronically. If the match is questionable, the ballot is pulled for further investigation and is not counted until it’s confirmed that it was submitted by the designated registered voter.

While acknowledging this aspect of enhanced ballot security, critics have identified other potential security problems unique to vote by mail. The potential problems stem from the fact that the ballot is not obtained at a polling place, completed in the privacy of the voting both, and returned there. With mailed ballots, buying and selling votes is easier. Under the traditional system, if someone wants to buy a given registered voter’s vote, the voter still has to go to the effort of actually going to the polling place to vote and, with the secrecy of the polling both, the buyer has no assurance that seller voted the way the buyer wanted. With vote by mail, the buyer can simply purchase the seller’s blank ballot, complete it, and copy a sample of the seller’s signature. Or, the seller can sign the ballot after the buyer knows it’s been completed the way he or she wants.

Critics argue that less explicit versions of voter fraud, or of improper vote influencing, are even more concerning under this system. We have not been able to confirm them independently, but stories are told in Oregon of occasions when someone who has strong views about the election has invited their friends and families to come over to a ballot signing party in which they all complete the ballots the way their friend or family member tells them to. Concerns are also expressed that even without a ballot party, voters will be subject to greater pressure to vote the way family or friends want them to vote.

Supporters of vote by mail respond that there are already stiff laws and penalties against buying votes and other kinds of voter fraud that make blatant fraud unlikely. While the potential for less blatant but inappropriate vote influencing is increased with vote by mail, there is little empirical evidence that this potential becomes a reality very often. A large random sample of Oregon voters were assured confidentiality and asked about their experience with such practices. Of 863 respondents surveyed, 221 (26%) said that someone else was present when they completed their mail-in ballot. Of those, only three (.3% of the 863), said that they felt pressure to vote a certain way and only one (.1% of the 863) said that they would have voted differently if they had been alone when they voted. Although this is the best empirical evidence on this question we were able to find, it should be interpreted with caution. Evidence shows that even in confidential surveys, people will sometimes report the answer that seems social desirable even if it isn’t true. For example, estimates of voter turnout based on asking people whether they voted always are higher than indicated by the actual number of ballots cast.

Two other reasons for going to vote by mail are offered by county clerks that have less to do with improving the representativeness of election outcomes. First, research finds that voters who have experienced vote by mail overwhelmingly prefer it (usually around 80%) to traditional voting. Second, the county clerks argue that vote by mail will decrease the costs and improve the feasibility of running the election system. The county clerks point to the savings of not having to train and pay all the polling place workers and not having to purchase and maintain all the equipment for each polling place. These costs factors loom particularly large as voting technology changes. The federal Help America Vote Act, passed in response to the 2000 Florida debacle, requires that there be one high tech, and expensive, voting machine at each polling place to accommodate handicapped voters. With vote by mail, these costs would be avoided while still providing accessibility for handicapped voters. Idaho is the last of the 50 states to use punch card ballots to any extent. Many of the most populous counties in the state still use them so that nearly 60% percent of Idaho voters record their vote with a punch card ballot. The problem is that no one manufactures punch card ballot machines and parts any longer. Consequently, all of the counties will need to convert to new optical scan technologies, probably within the next four years or so. Ada and Canyon counties are already planning to convert. If they had the vote by mail option, counties could purchase fewer of the expensive optical scanning machines because they would have more time to process the votes. Besides costs, county clerks point to the feasibility problems of recruiting enough election workers. They report that they have already been struggling to find enough poll workers in recent years. With the advent of new voting technology, it becomes even more difficult they report. Most of the workers they hire to work immediately on and around election day are retired people who feel less comfortable getting up to speed with the new technology.

Opponents of vote by mail also offer several other arguments for rejecting this proposal. First, they argue that the increase in voter turnout is not necessarily a good thing. They argue that those who would not go to the effort to show up at a polling place but who would be willing to return a mailed ballot will tend to be people who care less and are less informed. Proponents respond that there are many citizens who care and are informed but will face significant and understandable obstacles on a given election day such as having a sick child or unexpected travel for work. Proponents also point out that many rural Idahoans must travel extensive distances to vote. At the hearing in the House State Affairs Committee, the county clerks testified that some of their citizens have to drive more than an hour one way to vote.

Second, opponents argue that by extending the period in which most people vote from one day to a couple of weeks, you have voters making their choices based on different information. Imagine, they argue, that we experience a dramatic event like September 11 two days before the deadline for vote-by-mail ballots. Voters who had already voted might have voted differently with this information. Proponents respond that this also diminishes the effect of negative advertising and “robo calls” late in a campaign.

Third, opponents argue that vote by mail robs us of the communal experience of coming to the polling place and seeing our neighbors as we exercise this fundamental right within our system of government by the people.

Two concerns have been raised since the hearing that Chairman Loertscher has said were not addressed at the first hearing on the vote by mail bill. First and foremost, there is a concern with the constitutionality of the bill. The first section of Article 6 of the Idaho Constitution is entitled “Secret Ballot Guaranteed” and says, “An absolutely secret ballot is hereby guaranteed, and it shall be the duty of the legislature to enact such laws as shall carry this section into effect.” Those concerned about this argue that with the words “absolutely secret” the Framers were emphasizing how crucial this right is to a system of government by the people. Vote by mail, critics argue, cannot provide an absolute guarantee of secrecy since it eliminates the secret polling booth. Under vote by mail, they argue, a voter may face pressure to show their ballot to someone else and thus feel pressure to vote differently than the voter thinks best. Proponents of vote by mail argue that the same problem is true of absentee ballots but that no one has complained about the secrecy problem there and courts have not found absentee ballots to be unconstitutional. Opponents counter that since a person chooses to have an absentee ballot sent to them, they, in effect, willingly waive their right to an absolutely secret ballot, but this would not be true of vote by mail.

Second, there is a concern that much of the current transparency of the election process will be lost under vote by mail. Idaho Code 34-304 provides that authorized representatives of each political party may be present at each polling place to challenge whether a given voter is in fact a registered voter and to watch the general conduct of the election at that polling place. Opponents of vote by mail argue that this transparency helps protect the integrity of the voting process. Proponents of vote by mail respond that today this provision is rarely used and so is not of great significance. Opponents counter that simply the possibility that a political party may exercise this right provides an important measure of protection.

This bill has not received another hearing to address these concerns since they were raised and it looks likely that no additional hearing will be held. However, two possible compromise bills are being discussed. The essence of these compromise bills is discussed in a new section at the end of this brief.

5. Open vs. Closed Primaries

At their 2006 convention, the Idaho Republican Party endorsed a proposal to close Idaho’s open primary system as part of their platform. In Idaho’s current system, we don’t declare a party affiliation when we register and anyone can choose to vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary. In a closed primary system, voters register as members of a given party or as independents. Voters can then vote only in their party’s primary and independents, about one-third of Idaho voters, are not allowed to vote in primaries at all. Much of the motivation for this proposal is a concern that committed members of a rival party cross over to vote in the other party’s primary in order to elect a more extreme candidate who will be easier for their own party’s candidate to defeat in the general election.

Despite concerns about the possibility of cross-over voting, rigorous research has found that open primaries produce significantly more representative winners than closed primaries. Specifically, the evidence indicates conclusively that in states with open primary systems the winners of Congressional seats are significantly more ideologically representative of their districts than the winners in states with closed primary systems. Since a party’s own activists also tend to vote for more extreme nominees, and they constitute a larger percentage of closed primaries, these election systems produce more extreme, less representative winners.

Interestingly, this same rigorous research finds that there is a version of primaries that produces elected officials who are substantially more representative even than those produced by open primary systems. In states with modified closed primaries, like in states with fully closed primaries, voters must register as members of major political parties or as independents and those who are registered as members of a given party can only vote in primaries for their party. Unlike in fully-closed primary states, however, independents in modified close primaries can choose to vote in whichever primary they want.

The reason that these modified closed primaries produce more representative winners is that, it turns out, there is empirical evidence for the cross-over voting that motivated this bill. Researchers distinguish between two kinds of cross-over voting. First, there is “strategic” cross over voting in which voters vote for who they think is the weakest candidate so that it will be easier for their preferred candidate to win in the general election, the kind of cross over voting that motivated this bill. Researchers identify a second type of cross-over voting which they call “genuine” cross-over voting. In this case, someone who is not a member of a party votes in that party’s primary for the candidate they would most like to see win the general election. Since research shows that independents tend to be more moderate than party members, conventional wisdom and political science theory suggest that independents will tend practice genuine cross-over voting to vote for moderate candidates who they really want to win and who are more representative of the electorate as a whole. On the other hand, committed party members should be more likely to engage in strategic cross-over voting that will produce candidates with more extreme ideological views that will be easier to defeat. The evidence confirms that the reason modified closed primaries produce more representative elected officials that open primaries is that they prohibit the strategic cross-over voting of rival partisans while facilitating the genuine cross-over voting of independents.

The original bill proposed by the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives would have moved Idaho to a fully closed primary in which the roughly one-third of Idaho voters who are independents would not be allowed to vote. These primaries would still have been paid for with state and local government tax revenues. On a narrow 9 – 8 vote, the House State Affairs Committee voted to not “print” this bill, meaning that it would not even get a hearing in which the merits of the bill would be debated and then voted on.

The Republican leadership then drafted a new bill that would create a primary system in which Idahoans would register as members of a party or as independents. Each party would then have the option of allowing independents to vote in their primary or not rather than requiring that independents be able to vote in the primary of their choice.

Proponents argue that since allowing independents to vote in their primaries will help parties nominate candidates who will be more likely to win in the general elections, parties would tend to allow independents to participate in their primaries under this bill. Opponents point to the decision in the Republican convention to close primaries and to the original bill proposed by Republican leadership in the House as evidence that the Republican party will not choose to let independents in or at least not consistently so. Besides, opponents argue, if the intent really is to let independents vote in the primary, then there is no need for party discretion and that part should simply be taken out of the bill.

Proponents respond that the purpose of a primary is to select who will represent a given party in the general election. Consequently, the party, and no one else, should be able to decide how it chooses its nominee. Proponents argue that anything other than this limits party members’ fundamental right to freedom of association. These proponents argue that astring of U.S. Supreme Court cases makes it increasingly clear that, in the Court’s view, open primaries violate the fundamental constitutional right of freedom of association by forcing people to associate politically with those who have different political views. For links to these Supreme Court decisions, CLICK HERE.

Opponents first counter that primaries determine nominees who will run to represent all citizens in a given district, not just the members of one particular party. Second, they counter that if proponents really want to argue for party discretion on the basis that party nominations are purely an internal party matter protected by the freedom of association, then the government that represents all citizens and that is supported by all taxpayers should not administer or fund the party’s nomination process.

To read a column in the Boise Weekly by a Democrat discussing his views on Democratic cross over voting in Idaho CLICK HERE.

6. Instant Runoff Voting

Like most states, Idaho has a plurality rule for elections. That means that in races in which there are more than two candidates, the candidate with the most votes wins, even if he or she receives less than a majority of the votes. In fact, under this system candidates who are opposed by a majority of voters can nevertheless be elected to represent those voters, an outcome that seems fundamentally at odds with genuine representative government. The disturbing result that a majority oppose the winner becomes more likely the more candidates there are. Particularly crowded races also tend to work to the advantage of those who have narrow, but passionate, support.

Many point to the 2006 Republican primary for Idaho’s 1st Congressional District as an example of this kind of problem. Conservative state representative Bill Sali won this race even though there was wide opposition to him among mainstream Republicans as perhaps the most controversial Legislator in Idaho. In spite of this broad Republican opposition, Sali had enormous financial support from the Club for Growth, a national political organization that supports very conservative candidates against more mainstream Republicans in Republican primaries. As one of the pro-life activists’ most visible champions in the Idaho Legislature, Sali also had the passionate support of this group. He won with 26% of the votes cast in the primary (in a primary that had less than 26% voter turnout). Given the broad opposition to Sali, it appears quite possible that a similar dynamic will occur in 2008 since there are already rumors of four or five Republicans considering challenging Sali in the primary. It also appears likely that Senator Larry Craig will not run for re-election and many think there may be a crowded race for that open seat or that Congressman Mike Simpson will run for this seat, leading to a crowded race for his 2nd Congressional District seat.

While the Republican primary for the 1st Congressional District was particularly crowded, it is by no means rare to have more than two candidates in an Idaho election and have the winner get less than a majority. The Republican primary for Superintendent of Public Instruction had three candidates with the winner, Tom Luna, getting 42% of the vote, edging out Steve Smylie by 893 votes. As the Secretary of State’s results show, there were also six primaries for state legislative seats in which there were more than two candidates and the winner failed to get a majority, often edging out the second place candidate by a few hundred votes.

Republicans faced a similar, though more extreme version of Idaho’s 1st Congressional District challenge in their 2002 primaries for Utah’s three congressional districts. They had three candidates for one seat, 10 for another, and 12 for the third. Utah Republicans successfully dealt with the situation by using an innovative voting method known as Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) that is specifically designed to deal with just such situations.

Instant Runoff Voting is only used in elections with more than two candidates. In those cases, everyone votes for their preferred candidate like in most elections. Unlike in most elections, voters also indicate their second choice, third choice, and so on. If one candidate wins a majority of the first choice votes, he or she wins. If no candidate wins a majority of the first choice votes, the candidate who received the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. The second choice of those who voted for the eliminated candidate are then counted. If that gives any candidate a majority, then that candidate wins. If still no candidate gets a majority, then the next lowest vote getter is eliminated. This process continues until one candidate gets a majority.

This method thus provides the advantage that the candidate with the broadest support wins but without the expense and delay of a traditional run off. Instant Runoff Voting has been adopted to ensure that the most representative candidates are elected in a variety of places ranging from Republican nominations for Congress in Utah to city elections in San Francisco. Two states—Colorado and Minnesota—are considering IRV bills in their current legislative sessions. CLICK HERE to see the details of how it worked in Utah.

Proponents of IRV claim two other benefits. First, they argue that it reduces negative campaigning. Since candidates face the possibility that rival candidates’ supporters will choose them as their second or third choice, candidates have an additional incentive to respectfully consider the important issues raised by rival candidates rather than risk alienating a rival’s supporters with negative attacks. Second, proponents argue that IRV increases voter turnout. Though plausible arguments for both these claims can be made, little rigorous empirical research supports them as yet.

The chief criticism that is made of Instant Runoff Voting is that it’s too complicated for voters. Proponents argue that it’s actually fairly simple to indicate one’s first, second, and third choices. They also point out that voters have the option of only indicating their first choice if they want to. The empirical evidence indicates that the more complicated nature of IRV can be an issue for voters, though not a particularly large one. A survey of over 1,600 participants in San Francisco’s 2005 use of IRV for its city elections found that 52% of voters said they “understood it perfectly well”, 36% “understood it fairly well”, 10% “did not understand it entirely”, and 3% “did not understand it at all.”

A related criticism is that voters lack sufficient information to thoughtfully rank candidates. In the San Francisco study, 67% of those surveyed had ranked two or more candidates, while 33% voted only their first choice. The most common explanation given among the 33% who chose not to give more than their first choice was that they didn’t know enough about the other candidates (31% of that 33%) and that no other candidates were acceptable to them (21% of that 33%). Fifteen percent of the voters surveyed said that ranking was “difficult” or “very difficult,” while the rest, 85%, did not find it difficult.

One of the chief obstacles to Instant Runoff Voting in Idaho is the kind of ballots we use. It is more cumbersome, though possible, to use punch card ballots, which 60% of Idaho voters must currently use. Optical scan and paper ballots, the other two kinds of ballots used in Idaho, can easily accommodate Instant Runoff Voting. There are few enough races with more than two candidates, however, that it should be possible to use Instant Runoff Voting in those races, even with punch cards. Since punch card ballots are quickly becoming obsolete and counties will be changing to optical scan ballots in the next few years, this appears to be a near term challenge.

Aside from the obstacle of having the right voting equipment, perhaps the biggest argument against adopting Instant Runoff Voting for all elections in the state is simply that this would make Idaho the first in the nation to do so. On the question of open vs. closed primaries there are many states who have taken a variety of approaches over many years, so there is considerable evidence based on actual experience to draw on. On the question of vote by mail, Oregon has used it statewide for almost ten years now, and other states provide a local option to use it, providing a significant base of experience to draw on. This level of experience with Instant Runoff Voting does not yet exist.

On the other hand, the main claim of Instant Runoff Voting is less in need of empirical evidence than the claims of the other reforms we’ve considered. Until rigorous research had been done, people made reasonable competing claims about whether open, closed, or modified closed primaries produced more representative candidates. Even the research-based answer to the question of vote by mail’s effect on voter turnout changed just this January when a new study came out. In contrast, no one claims that Instant Runoff Voting fails to produce winners with broader support than plurality voting rules for races with more than two candidates.

Five Instant Runoff policy options appear feasible for Idaho at the present time.

  1. Use Instant Runoff Voting for all races with more than two candidates starting with the 2008 election. This is what the bill in the Minnesota Legislature proposes. This would immediately eliminate the problem of candidates winning without majority support, but implementing this quickly would pose logistical challenges.
  2. Use Instant Runoff Voting for all races with more than two candidates starting with the 2010 election. This would eliminate the problem of candidates winning without majority support reasonably soon and do so at a time when the logistics would be much easier because all counties will likely have converted from punch card ballots.
  3. Use Instant Runoff Voting for all races with more than two candidates starting with the 2012 election. Although this would allow candidates to win without a majority for two more elections, the change would be made after counties had moved from punch card ballots and had had experience with the new equipment.
  4. Establish an interim legislative committee to explore whether Instant Runoff Voting should be used and how soon it could practically be used. This is part of what the bill in the Colorado Legislature proposes.
  5. Give counties and cities an option to pilot Instant Runoff Voting and then draw on this experience to consider whether it should be adopted statewide. This is the other part of what the bill in the Colorado Legislature proposes.

Additional IRV Information

To see a demonstration of how IRV:
Works generally, CLICK HERE
Would have worked in a recent three-way race for the US Senate in Washington, CLICK HERE
Would have working in the 2000 presidential election in Florida, CLICK HERE

Websites dedicated to IRV:

In depth articles:
Instant Runoff Voting” by Robert Richie in the Election Law Journal
“Preserving and Expanding the Right to Vote: Ranked-choice Voting” published by the American Constitution Society for Law & Policy

7. Robo Calls

“Robo calls” are becoming a more common part of the election experience. These are the automated, recorded phone calls that campaigns and “independent” organizations make on behalf of candidates or issues, often in the closing days of a campaign. Their use is increasing in large part because they are so cheap, as little as 3 or 4 cents per call compared to 20 cents for a postcard. Robo calls are also used for marketing products or services.

A proposal in the Legislature would regulate these phone calls by requiring that they can only be placed to people who have indicated their willingness to receive such calls in advance, or placed from one entity to the home of someone with whom they have a pre-existing relationship. Robo calls could still be made if neither of these two requirements were met as long as a live operator first called, identified on whose behalf the call was being made, and the recipient agreed to hear the recording.

Supporters of this proposal argue that these calls are becoming increasingly a nuisance to citizens with little redeeming value and so should be limited in this way.

Opponents argue that there are perfectly good options already available to people who don’t wish to listen to these phone calls. First, more people have caller ID all the time which would allow them to screen such calls. Second, if one picks up such a call and doesn’t wish to hear it, they can simply hang up.

More importantly opponents argue, this proposal limits the fundamental Constitutional right of free speech. In particular, it limits political speech which has long been regarded by American courts as a form of speech that deserves special protections. Even if the courts would allow this intrusion on this right, opponents argue, it is not wise public policy to do so. The Idaho Association of Realtors is among the opponents making this argument, noting that they had over 100,000 such calls placed to voters in Idaho on behalf of gubernatorial candidate Butch Otter, one of those “independent expenditures”, in the closing days of the 2006 campaign. Some commentators have speculated that these calls may have made a difference in this race which polls had showed to be too close to call just a few weeks before election day.

Some who are not great supporters of robo calls, but who nevertheless concerned about limiting free speech have suggested an alterntive proposal that would simply require that the call disclose who was sponsoring the call on whose behalf much like what is now required of political television ads.

8. Public Financing Options for Campaigns

Senate Bill 1290 takes on the issue of big money influence in Idaho politics. If candidates can raise enough donations between $5 and $100 from at least a minimum number of registered voters, they qualify to receive funds for their campaign. For example, if a candidate for governor receives these small donations from at least 2,500 registered voters, he or she would qualify for the public funds. A commission would establish how much candidates for each kind of office would receive for a given election. The bill would also create a trust fund to finance this measure. Revenue for the trust fund would come from fines for violating various campaign laws and from other sources to be determined by the Legislature.

This bill is patterned after similar programs currently in place in Arizona and Maine. For more information, go to: www.publicampaign.org

To view a video with Bill Moyers about this effort go to: www.publicampaign.org/video

9. Motor Voter Registration

The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993, also know as the Motor Voter Law, required that a state must provide the opportunity to apply to register to vote for federal elections by three means:

  1. Provide individuals with the opportunity to register to vote at the same time that they apply for a driver’s license or seek to renew a driver’s license, and requires the State to forward the completed application to the appropriate state of local election official.
  2. Offer voter registration opportunities at all offices that provide public assistance and all offices that provide state-funded programs primarily engaged in providing services to persons with disabilities. Each applicant for any of these services, renewal of services, or address changes must be provided with a voter registration form of a declination form as well as assistance in completing the form and forwarding the completed application to the appropriate state or local election official.
  3. Provide that citizens can register to vote by mail using mail-in-forms developed by each state and the Election Assistance Commission.

States were able to opt out of the Motor Voter Law if they offered same registration. This means that a person can show up at what would be their polling place, register to vote, and then immediately vote. Six state, including Idaho, availed themselves of this option. The other 44 states now operate under the Motor Voter Law.

Supporters of this idea also argue that even if Idaho does not go to vote by mail, it would still be better to come under the Motor Voter Law. First, they argue, this will boost voter registration and participation as it has in the 44 states that opted into it. Supporters also argue that same day registration is too prone to abuse. For example, if someone owns more than one property at which they receive a utility bill, they can simply take each utility bill to the specified polling place, register, and then vote.

The original opponents of the Motor Voter Law in Idaho argued that citizens should be required to put forth the effort to go to a polling place to register and to vote. Those who will only register to vote if they can do so when they get a drivers license, opponents argue, would tend to be those who would be less informed to vote anyway. Proponents respond that making voting registration more difficult than it needs to be is no way to promote government by the people.

Opponents also argue that the Motor Voter Law also makes it more difficult to purge the registration rolls of registrations that have become invalid or of those who have not voted. Under current Idaho law, the state can purge a voter off the registration list if they haven’t voted in four years. Before they are purged, notice is sent to the registered voter giving them the chance to stay registered if they wish to. According to the Secretary of State’s Office, many of these notices are returned because the voter has moved or passed away. Under the Motor Voter Law, eight years without voting in an election have to pass before this notification and purge process can occur. Opponents argue that this leads to over-registration and inaccurate voter registration lists.

10. Compromise Vote by Mail Proposals

Given that Republican leaders who oppose the clerks’ original vote by mail proposal will likely hold that bill in committee and let it die there, two compromise ideas have been developed. First, the statutes governing Idaho’s current absentee ballot provisions could be modified to allow voters to become an “ongoing absentee voter.” Ballots would then be sent to that voter on an on-going basis unless that status was terminated because:

  1. The voter requested that they no longer be sent
  2. The voter died or was disqualified as a voter
  3. The voter’s registration record was cancelled
  4. A mailed out ballot was returned as undeliverable

Supporters argue that this bill would provide voters who liked the mail in ballot that option while still honoring the constitutional guarantee of a secret ballot since they would only receive this status if they voluntarily asked for it and, by implication, waived their right to vote in a secret voting booth.

The second idea would enlarge the maximum size for mail ballot precincts. Under current state law, a county may designate any precinct with no more than 125 registered voters as such a precinct. The election for those precincts is then conducted as a vote by mail system. This compromise proposal would increase that maximum size to precincts with no more than 250 registered voters. Supporters argue that this would address the problems for election officials and voters who live in very rural areas. There are 60 precincts in Idaho who are eligible to be mail ballot precincts. If the maximum was raised to 250 registered voters an additional 120 precincts would be eligible.