Tuesday’s vote puts Idaho Falls’ first mayoral runoff election in the books.
The contest pits incumbent Mayor Rebecca Casper against Councilwoman Barbara Ehardt. Thirty miles to the south, Blackfoot also will hold a runoff election between incumbent Mayor Paul Loomis and challenger Marc Carroll.
Runoff elections are triggered when a single candidate doesn’t garner more than a 50 percent of the vote.
Though Idaho Falls’ 2005 runoff ordinance is relatively new, Gem State cities are generally trending away from the contests because of their impact on local budgets and how infrequently they change general results.
Still, a handful of Idaho cities use runoffs to magnify and hone candidate viewpoints, as well as allow their community to elect with consensus.
“In a crowded field it’s harder to see the distinctions between candidates,” constitutional scholar and Alturas Institute President David Adler said. “The runoff provides an opportunity for more nuanced looks to determine where strengths and weaknesses lie. Secondly, it gives the candidates a way to refine their positions and draw distinctions — sometimes sharp distinctions.”
American Falls, Blackfoot, Boise, Eagle, Idaho Falls, Mountain Home, Pocatello and Spirit Lake are among the 201 incorporated Gem State municipalities that have mayoral runoff ordinances. Idaho Falls is the only city with city council runoff elections; Blackfoot scrapped its council runoff ordinance several elections ago.
Idaho Falls’ sole council runoff elections occurred in 2013, when Ehardt and former councilman Dee Whittier defeated their challengers in the general election but didn’t get more than 50 percent of the vote. Councilman Ed Marohn and challenger Jilene Burger were only separated in the general election by six votes.
In Blackfoot, mayoral runoffs have been somewhat common since the city’s ordinance was created in 1989. There were mayoral runoffs in 2005 and 2013; each general election race featured six candidates. This year, there were five mayoral candidates.
The winners of the 2005 and 2013 Blackfoot general races also won the runoff.
Since the turn of the century, the only time a Gem State mayoral runoff elected a different winner than the primary was during Eagle’s hotly contested 2007 race, Association of Idaho Cities policy analyst Justin Ruen said.
“It’s very unusual that a candidate who wins in the runoff is different from the one who gets the most votes in a general,” he said.
Considering results usually match those of a general, Ruen said most cities don’t want to pay for runoffs.
Idaho Falls’ 2013 runoffs cost $29,000, city clerk Kathy Hampton said. Money goes toward ballot printing, legal notice ads and poll worker wages.
Counties — reimbursed through the state — pay for municipal elections, but the state’s 2013 election consolidation manual dictated cities pay for runoff elections.
“It’s an extraordinary requirement at the city’s discretion, so it’s not fair for the counties to take financial liability,” Ruen said. “Because of the financial impact, cities have taken a closer look at runoffs. And there are a few cities that decided to get rid of them; that seems to be the trend.”
The Idaho Falls City Council discussed eliminating the city’s runoff ordinance in 2012 and 2015, though the idea was tabled each time. Alternative election types include an “instant runoff,” where voters rank their candidate preferences; some cities also have at-large council seats, wherein the top voter-getters are chosen.
Apart from the cost of runoffs, administrators worry about voter turnout.
Several thousand people who voted during the 2013 Idaho Falls City Council general election didn’t vote in the runoff election. Turnout for Ehardt’s race was down 2,872 people, or 32 percent. Turnout for Marohn and Whittier’s races were down 2,582 and 2,518 votes, respectively, good for about 29 percent in each race.
Turnout in the 2005 and 2014 Blackfoot mayoral runoffs runoff were down 9.5 percent and 6.5 percent, respectively.
“Oftentimes we find the runoff elections don’t produce the same turnout; sometimes people lose interest,” Adler said.
Early and absentee voting has been strong in Idaho Falls, however — even outpacing the same categories from the general election. That’s despite there being only one race on the ballot.
Voters have cast 1,801 early and absentee ballots as of 2 p.m. Friday, the last day of early voting. In the mayoral general election, 1,612 early and absentee ballots were cast.
Sometimes the “gloves come off” and “emotions run high” with a narrowed runoff field, Adler said. Campaign finance limits also reset.
“In the same way you can focus on the positions and thus target differences, the runoff can give way to the release of pretty hard-boiled feelings and commentary that usually don’t fit the politics of a small community,” he said.
Campaigning in recent weeks has revolved around a local political action committee that has inflamed opinions of those for and against Casper or Ehardt, which may drive more voters to the polls.
“In a mayoral election where there is a greater intensity of feelings, I would expect the turnout to be as high or higher as the general,” Adler said. “Some people who weren’t particularly interested in the election might now in the last three weeks have found different reasons or motivation to participate. And there is a lot to be said for finding consensus in a community election.”
Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 208-542-6762.