Phil McGrane

McGrane

BOISE — Following an election with a record number of mail-in votes and widespread misinformation on voter fraud, legislators and elections officials have been working to rewrite Idaho’s absentee voting laws.

The Senate State Affairs Committee has voted to introduce multiple bills on the topic. The most significant was presented Monday by Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane. It would make the temporary voting changes passed during the August special legislative session permanent. The methods used in Idaho during the 2020 election expired on Dec. 31, 2020.

During the special session, lawmakers approved a law allowing the opening and scanning of ballots beginning seven days before Election Day that November, the Associated Press reported.

Election officials anticipated a huge surge in absentee ballots as Idaho voters feared going to polls due to the pandemic. Additionally, the number of polling places decreased as poll workers, who tend to be older and more susceptible to serious illness if they contract the virus, opted not to take part, the AP reported.

“If there’s anything on the election that is most important this session, this is it,” said McGrane of the bill.

Poll workers would be able to begin opening and scanning mail-in ballots seven days before Election Day. However, the results of those ballots would not be tallied until Election Day. The bill would also require polling places to have video surveillance that is live-streamed to the public during that seven-day window.

“After seeing what happened nationally and the importance of being able to observe and the importance of transparency in terms of the integrity of the elections, that remains very important,” McGrane said.

Idaho officials encouraged absentee and early voting in the November election, and about 500,000 of Idaho’s 1 million registered voters used those two options, the AP reported. In all, a record-breaking 880,000 ballots were cast.

Election officials said the new law allowing ballots to be opened and scanned, but not tallied, allowed county clerks to quickly report the election results.

Smaller counties had an issue with the video surveillance requirement in 2020 due to time and money constraints, according to McGrane. McGrane said he is working with counties to help them secure federal funds to ensure all absentee ballots in the future remain under video surveillance.

A new addition to the bill would change the requirement for absentee ballots to be sent out to voters from 45 days prior to the election to 30 days prior to the election. Military voters or voters living overseas would still be required to have it sent 45 days prior.

Two additional bills on the topic were printed on Monday and referred to the Senate State Affairs committee. Senate Bill 1064 would no longer allow absentee voters to request a new mail-in ballot for a different party. Now, voters “can only request the issuance of a new ballot of the same type they originally requested.”

“In the May 2020 primary, many voters who requested absentee ballots subsequently requested that their county clerk provide them with a different party ballot. Some county clerks allowed this, creating additional administrative and direct costs associated with spoiling the already-sent ballot and issuing a new one,” wrote Secretary of State Jason Hancock in its statement of purpose

Senate Bill 1069 would require all issues with absentee ballots to be resolved by 8 p.m. on the day of the election. The clerk must attempt to contact the voter “to ensure the issue is not related to any form of fraud” and give the voter “the opportunity to remedy the issue.”

But it appears some legislators want to do away with no-excuse voting absentee ballots altogether. On Monday morning, the House State Affairs Committee voted to introduce a bill from Rep. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, that would only allow those in the military, living overseas or who have sworn to having a physical inability to vote by absentee ballot. It is unclear exactly how voters would swear to their inability and what would be included as a physical inability, but exceptions would include reasons such as a voter being out-of-town.