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Idaho House to consider bills making changes to voting and voter affiliation laws

Ada County - Voting - 2021
Otto Kitsinger
/
An early voting dropbox outside Boise City Hall on May 5, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Mountain Sun)

The House State Affairs Committee advanced both bills on Monday

Two bills that would make changes to the delivery of absentee ballots and deadlines for affiliating with a political party are heading to the floor of the Idaho House of Representatives.

Both bills also include emergency clauses, which would make them effective for this year’s May 17 primary elections if they become law.

The first bill was House Bill 547, which would make it a crime to turn in absentee ballots for a friend or neighbor who is not a relative or roommate if the bill is passed into law.

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, is sponsoring the bill, which is a rewritten version of a bill he pushed last year that passed the Idaho House but was never considered by the Idaho Senate.

Moyle said the bill is necessary to prevent what he called ballot harvesting. Moyle said he included a few changes to the bill in hopes of making it more appealing to the Idaho Senate. Those changes include reducing the criminal charges from a felony to a misdemeanor if the individual has less than 10 ballots and was not paid to turn in those ballots by a third party.

“I still believe it should be a felony, but they wanted a way to allow individuals with less than 10 to have a misdemeanor,” Moyle told legislators during Monday’s public hearing. “Everything else is pretty much the same as you saw last year.”

All three people who testified during the public hearing opposed the bill.

Kendal Shaber, a historian who said she was testifying on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Idaho, called the bill “an awful solution in search of a problem.”

“What is the compelling reason for making it more difficult or impossible for the disabled, the elderly, reservation residents, those in care facilities, the sick and those lacking transportation to exercise their constitutional right to vote?” Shaber said during the bill’s public hearing.

“Many of these Idaho citizens don’t have family in Idaho or a living spouse or a roommate,” Shaber added. “The person they trust could be their dearest friend, a church member or neighbor. But with its possible misdemeanor or felony charges, this bill delivers a chilling effect on both those who need support to convey their absentee ballots and those friends and neighbors who would like to help.”

Hollie Conde of Conservation Voters for Idaho opposed the bill, saying it would make it harder for Idahoans to exercise their constitutional rights.

“These people would be charged as criminals for helping a neighbor or, again, a friend or best friend,” Conde told legislators.

Conde also opposed the emergency clause attached to it that would make it become effective before the May 17 primary elections if the bill is passed into law.

Deputy Secretary of State Jason Hancock said Secretary of State Lawerence Denney supports the bill.

“We don’t believe that ballot harvesting is a good practice, in that absentee voting by its nature objectively is the least secure form of voting in that ballots are outside the control of election officials,” Hancock said. “That doesn’t happen with other forms of voting.”

Hancock said ballot harvesting encourages partisan actors to get involved in the collection of ballots.

The House State Affairs Committee voted along party lines Monday to send the bill to the House floor with a recommendation it passes. Republicans on the committee voted in favor of advancing the bill. Reps. Chris Mathias and John Gannon, both Democrats from Boise, voted against the bill.

The Idaho House could take the bill up for debate and vote before the end of the week.

Bill changing deadline to affiliate with a political party before the primaries advances

The House State Affairs Committee also voted Monday to advance a bill that would change the deadline for unaffiliated voters to affiliate with a party.

If passed into law, House Bill 439 would make it so unaffiliated voters would no longer be able to affiliate with a political party on the day of the primary election when they vote. Instead, they would have to affiliate with a political party by the deadline for a candidate to file paperwork to run for office before the primary election. That’s the same deadline for voters already affiliated with a political party to change their affiliation. This year, that deadline is March 11. That means if the bill becomes law, unaffiliated voters would have short notice about the earlier deadline, which is now less than one month away.

To vote in the Republican primary elections, voters need to officially affiliate with the Republican Party. The Democrats’ primary election is open to any voters, regardless of whether they affiliate with the party.

Rep. Doug Okuniewicz, R-Hayden, is co-sponsoring the bill with Sen. Mary Souza, R- Coeur d’Alene.

He said the purpose of the bill is to prevent people from switching parties to game the system.

“For the folks who sort of game the system and try to switch sides when convenient they can still do that, but they can’t do it right up until Election Day,” Okuniewicz said during the bill’s public hearing.

All three people who testified during Monday’s public hearing opposed the bill.

Shiva Rajbhandari, a 17-year-old Boise High School junior involved with the nonpartisan voter advocacy group Babe Vote, urged legislators to oppose the bill. He said it would hurt unaffiliated voters who aren’t aware of the change in this new bill or who procrastinate researching candidates or filing paperwork to affiliate.

“Just like I spent, what, seven hours of the weekend watching ‘Euphoria’ instead of doing my homework, many Idahoans might procrastinate researching the party platforms and deciding which one they support until a few days before the primary,” Rajbhandari said during the public hearing. “Under this law, it’d be too late.”

“The way Babe Vote sees it, this bill is another attempt at voter suppression and in no way does it make the primary election process more secure,” Rajbhandari added.

Conde, of Conservation Voters for Idaho, also opposed the bill. She told legislators more 310,000 Idaho voters are unaffiliated and would have little notice of the change before the new deadline.

“Voters would be understandably upset and confused at being turned away from voting in a primary election that is very, very important to them,” Conde said.

Ultimately, the House State Affairs Committee also voted along party lines to send House Bill 439 to the House floor with a recommendation it passes. Mathias and Gannon voted against it.

If the bill passes there, it would be sent to the Idaho Senate for consideration.

Originally, Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, was acting as the bill’s sponsor, but her name is no longer listed as a sponsor of the bill.