When to count absentee ballots subject of committee hearing


A government watchdog group says Idaho's public pension retirement system needs $3.5 billion to fully cover obligations.

How many hours before an election should county clerks be able to open ballots?  Should clerks be limited to open ballots only on Election Day?

Those are the questions that came before the House State Affairs Committee Thursday and panel members couldn’t decide, so they moved to strip any time frame references from the legislation.

The time frame provision was only one element of a mini-elections reform bill pitched by the secretary of state’s office.  The bill also includes clarification for identification requirements for voting on Election Day.

The 24-hour provision drew the most debate and testimony in the meeting Thursday.  Tim Hurst, elections chief with the secretary of state’s office, said that time frame was chosen because his department was uncomfortable with allowing ballots to sit in offices over the weekend.

But election officials from Ada and Canyon counties, the two most populated counties in Idaho, said that large amounts of absentee ballots sent in prior to elections would cause problems and delay results if the 24-hour time frame is implemented.

The problem is that in order to save postage, ballots are folded one or two times before being put into envelopes.  When county clerks receive the folded ballots, they must unfold and apply weights to them before running them through counting machines.

A staffer in the Ada elections office said his county received nearly 29,000 absentee ballots through the mail prior to the 2010 general election, an amount that would have been difficult to flatten and count with only 24 hours before Election Day.

But the problem isn’t all about the time frame.  Secretary of State Ben Ysursa told committee members that because there are no uniform security measures at elections offices throughout the state, the Legislature should be cautious about how ballots are handled.  “I suggested we cut it down,” said Ysursa, adding that some of his staffers wanted a longer time frame than what is outlined in the bill. Though some counties, like Ada and Canyon, have enhanced security measures for ballot, not all do, Yrursa pointed out.

Another issue, Ysursa said, is the media’s expectation of timely results after polls are closed.  With the 24-hour limit, some legislators inferred, could also come a longer counting time, which could cause an outcry from Idaho news agencies.  “Are you ready to take heat from the media?” asked Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise.

Ysursa said that he is prepared for backlash as long as results are accurate.  “I don’t think timely ought to be in time for the 10:30 KTVB news,” said Ysursa.  “If it’s slow in their mind – the press – then we have problems [with counting machines]. There’s nothing further from the truth.”

Political activist and lobbyist Larry Spencer said that ballots must be protected at all costs and that 120 hours would be too long.  “I firmly believe that the sanctity of the ballots is much more important and we shouldn’t be opening them early,” said Spencer.

To solve the problem of the folds in ballots, Spencer suggested clerks rent industrial presses, which he said could flatten ballots in a short period of time.

The bill now heads to the House amending order, where removal of the 24-hour time frame will likely be removed.  There could be controversy during that process, however, because not all committee members are complicit with the plan for complete removal.  King and a few others may move to keep the 24-hour time limit for small counties and implement the 120-hour time frame for counties with more than 25,000 residents.

Note: Elections chief Tim Hurst is not related to the author of this post.

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Political activist and lobbyist Larry Spencer testifies on the bill, Political activist and lobbyist Larry Spencer testifies on the bill
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