early voting

A voter casts his ballot at the Bonneville County Elections Office in this file photograph taken Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020.

Idaho municipal elections are nonpartisan affairs but this year’s election in Idaho Falls has featured overt displays of party politics from some of the new candidates.

Challengers Sandra Hokanson, Robert Thompson and Karie Caldwell have all been publicly backed by the Bonneville County Republican Central Committee, which has burnished its ultraconservative reputation over the course of more than a decade. Central Committee Chairman Mark Fuller previously told the Post Register the committee has donated to the challengers to encourage their campaigns because committee leadership found them to be “affiliated with conservative Republican principles.” Fuller clarified this wasn’t an act of endorsement.

Politics plays a factor in every election — in 2013 then-Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter endorsed then-candidate Rebecca Casper for the Idaho Falls mayor’s job — but it is unusual to see partisan groups make such efforts in a city election.

The polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Election Day, Tuesday.

Hard-right Republicans have been pushing for Idaho’s municipal elections for some time. In an October 2019 guest editorial in the Post Register, Doyle Beck called for ending nonpartisan elections because they deny voters “transparency to make more informed decisions when voting.”

Beck is a state committeeman for the Bonneville County GOP and is on the board of directors for the Idaho Freedom Foundation.

The effort to interject party politics into traditionally nonpartisan roles has been gaining momentum statewide.

In Idaho Falls there’s little drawback for politicians wearing their partisan inclinations on their sleeves, especially if those inclinations lean right. Bonneville County is heavily Republican. In the 2020 presidential election Republican President Donald Trump got 37,805 votes to Democrat Joe Biden’s 14,254. That’s nearly 73% of the vote for Trump.

But this year’s embrace of party politics by the challengers and their backers is largely unprecedented.

The incumbent City Council members seeking re-election are Lisa Burtenshaw, Jim Francis and Jim Freeman who will face Hokanson, Thompson and Caldwell, respectively.

Those races were spotlighted last week when a potentially illegal political flyer was distributed in some parts of Idaho Falls.

The Bonneville County Republican Central Committee nearly distributed what appears to be illegal campaign material that promoted the three City Council challengers. The Post Register earlier reported an unknown individual with connections to the committee made door hangers with flyers that attack the incumbents for supporting a “leftist agenda” and call for the challengers, described as “conservative candidates,” to be voted in. The flyers do not indicate who paid for them, which is a violation of Idaho election law.

Chairman Fuller, an Idaho Falls-based attorney, told the Post Register the individual behind the flyers was one of his clients. He said the committee initially planned to assist distributing the door hangers but backed off after realizing the flyers did not contain information that indicated who was responsible for them.

The Bonneville County Republicans submitted Hokanson’s “Why I’m running for city council” column to the Post Register as the Bonneville GOP column for Oct. 20. Hokanson declined an interview with the Post Register for an article about her and Burtenshaw’s election, instead substituting comment from the column.

Caldwell is a Bonneville County Republican Central Committee Precinct Committee Officer for Precinct 27. Caldwell did not respond to Post Register interview requests for an article about her and Freeman’s council race.

In an earlier interview with the Post Register, Thompson said he brings conservative ideas to the table. He also wrongly claimed Francis is a registered Democrat. (Public voter registration rolls confirm Francis is a registered unaffiliated voter.) Thompson is a registered Republican.

The incumbents have pushed back against attempts to bring partisan politics into the city election. Francis earlier told the Post Register that nonpartisan politics is the “very nature of city government.”

“The whole concept of delivering clean water, taking wastewater away and cleaning it … maintaining the streets, maintaining the 300 miles of pipes … having a city airport that’s within the city. Those have nothing to do with national politics. They have everything to do with direct service to the community,” Francis said.

All three of the incumbents spoke to the Post Register to express their frustrations with the door hangers and the partisan attacks against them. Francis said the door hangers were not only an attack on the incumbents and democracy, “but an attack on the city.”

Most of the elections originally scheduled for Tuesday have already been called. There will be 12 elections on the ballot and 35 elections were called because only one candidate filed for the race, or enough candidates filed to fill available positions.

Here are the nine other races and items that will be on the ballot, not including the Idaho Falls City Council seats:

Two-term incumbent Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper will face newcomer Ashley Romero.

In Idaho Falls School District 91, incumbent Clerk Paul Haacke will face Kenneth Williams.

Bonneville Joint School District 93 Trustee Carissa Coats will face Matthew Sather while Vice Chairman Scott Lynch will face Randy Smith.

Two seats are up for election on the Iona City Council. Newcomers Evan Mann and James West are seeking election as well as incumbents Kathy McNamara and Michael Thompson.

The Ucon City Council also has two seats open for election. Newcomer Corey Hansen is running against incumbents Tyrell Maughan and Johnalee McDonald.

Three candidates are running for the Ririe Joint School District 252 Zone 5 trustee position. Taelyn Nelson, Austin Rasmussen and Angela Reed are seeking to replace Cody Kemp, who is not running for re-election.

Tyler Gebs and Daniel Gubler are running for the Bonneville Fire Protection District No. 1 Commission Seat 5 position.

An ordinance for the city of Swan Valley is also on the ballot which will impose tax increases for short-term rental charges, alcohol and sales tax.

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