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Who’s who in the GOP race to be Idaho’s next secretary of state?

Idaho State Capitol - 2021
Otto Kitsinger
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Idaho State Capitol building on March 23, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Three candidates are vying for the chance to oversee state elections

Three Republicans from different corners of Idaho politics are vying to be the Republican nominee in the race for Idaho secretary of state — a race that could highlight the tensions between the two chambers of the Legislature and Idaho Republicans leading up to the May 17 primary.

The Idaho Secretary of State is an executive office responsible for administering state elections, licensing businesses, trademarks, notaries and other professions, and has various other duties related to official documentation. The secretary of state also serves on the State Board of Land Commissioners, also known as the Land Board, which is responsible for directing the management of more than 2.5 million acres of state endowment trust lands across the state. The money from those endowment trusts is distributed to Idaho schools, state hospitals, veteran homes and other agencies. For fiscal year 2023, the Endowment Fund Investment Board reported more than $100 million in funding would be distributed to state beneficiaries, a record number.

Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, and Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, have already sparred in a debate in North Idaho, and both have criticized Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane for events related to the 2020 general election. The three candidates are scheduled to debate at 8 p.m. Tuesday on Idaho Public Television.

The Idaho Capital Sun reached out to all three candidates to talk about their backgrounds, careers in politics and why they wanted to run for secretary of state. The candidates appear in alphabetical order by last name.

PHIL MCGRANE: McGrane’s 2022 bid is his second run at secretary of state

Even when McGrane ran for secretary of state in 2014 as a relatively unknown 32-year-old chief deputy clerk in Ada County, he said he was marked as an “establishment” candidate.

His 2014 bid was unsuccessful, but he came in second to current Secretary of State Lawerence Denney out of four Republican candidates.

This time around, the same establishment term is attached to his candidacy, in part because he has the endorsement of people like former Govs. C.L. “Butch” Otter, Phil Batt and Dirk Kempthorne, and former Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa — the same crowd who endorsed him in 2014.

McGrane told Ysursa in 2013 that he wanted to be secretary of state someday, but it wasn’t always the career he had in mind. He grew up in southeast Boise and graduated from the University of Washington with a philosophy degree and traveled around the country working in various philanthropic roles, including Habitat for Humanity in Alabama. During that time, he met his wife and moved back to Boise in 2005, where he applied for a job with the Ada County elections office. It was the first job in Ada County created by the Help America Vote Act, implementing upgrades to the election system after the presidential election in 2000.

“I became kind of an expert on that early on, just because Ada County is so large. My main job was recruiting poll workers and training them, finding polling locations and helping count ballots when we still voted on punch cards,” McGrane said.

A few years later, McGrane decided to attend law school at the University of Denver and eventually became a law clerk for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission in Washington, D.C., an agency created by the Help America Vote Act that “supports state and local election officials with efforts to ensure accessible, accurate and secure elections.”

Technology is one of our greatest strengths to secure elections, McGrane says

After graduating from law school, then-Ada County Clerk Chris Rich recruited McGrane as chief deputy clerk until he was elected clerk in 2018. He directed the largest absentee election in state history in 2020, and touts the office’s status as one of the state’s Top 10 Best Places to Work in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

McGrane said he loves working at the clerk’s office, but he wants to be secretary of state because he sees opportunities to improve the way Idaho uses technology to administer elections, including better cybersecurity for the systems used and higher quality databases for voter registration, campaign finance and guidance.

“Technology is one of our greatest strengths in terms of securing and protecting our elections,” McGrane said.

As chairman of the Elections Committee for the Idaho Association of Recorders and Clerks, McGrane said he has the knowledge to make those improvements in a way that will work for the biggest and smallest counties across the state.

“Having worked at the county level and building those relationships puts me in a unique position to come in and improve those processes,” McGrane said. “We can talk in broad statements all day long, but to really get it done, you have to know what the risks are.”

As a member of the Land Board, McGrane said his legal background would be useful, and added he has broad support from logging businesses, cattlemen’s associations and other stakeholder groups. As clerk, he’s also seen the effects of rising property values and how that may create challenges for the Land Board in the future.

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Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane, a candidate for Idaho secretary of state, speaks with supporters at an event. (Courtesy of Phil McGrane)

McGrane: Idaho can make voting convenient and secure

McGrane said he thinks it’s possible to make voting convenient and secure, and points to the implementation of early voting in Ada County, which he said is one of the most secure forms of voting. There are also areas for improvement around precinct consolidation for areas like Eagle, where residential addresses outnumber business addresses and precincts are confusingly close together. Voting centers are another option for people who work in one city and live in another and need a convenient place to vote.

“If you work in Boise and live in Kuna, you have to race back home to be able to vote before 8 p.m.,” McGrane said. “When turnout is low, a lot of that is because of the convenience factor. Whether it’s work or kids, life happens on Tuesdays.”

He would also like to see voting guides produced by the secretary of state’s office. Ada County has an existing database to find sample ballots based on address, and McGrane said something similar could work statewide to make sure voters know what will be on their ballot and research various issues and candidates based on that.

McGrane said he has opposed federal efforts to change election laws, including a letter he wrote to Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch opposing the House Resolution related to voting. But he said he was disheartened by bills heard during the Idaho legislative session that he viewed as efforts to make voting harder.

In Ada County, he said there are six cases of questionable citizenship out of close to 300,000 registered voters, and that shouldn’t mean other people have to jump through hoops to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

“There’s way too much chasing fears,” McGrane said. “We do need to make sure our elections are secure, but not so secure that no one can vote. We need to make it convenient, but not so convenient that there’s rampant fraud.” 

DOROTHY MOON: Moon came to Idaho from Missouri in 1994

Moon lives in a cabin near Stanley, but her accent is distinctly Midwestern. She was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and raised near the Ozark Mountains. She graduated from Missouri State University with a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and a master’s degree in resource planning, and eventually taught geology to college students in Ozark, Missouri.

When Moon met her husband, Darr, through mutual friends, they moved to his home state of Idaho in 1994 and raised their two boys, first in the Rupert area and then Stanley. Darr Moon is a geologist and civil engineer, and the two have owned Moon & Associates since 2005.

“He was a gold miner, and I was a gold digger, and the rest is history,” Moon jokes.

Darr Moon also serves on the national council for the John Birch Society, a far right-wing political advocacy group.

The two built their cabin home off the grid, Moon says, with four Costco solar panels, a propane fridge and a 1,000-gallon propane tank. Moon taught high school and middle school science and directed the special education program in Challis until she retired in 2012.

Moon became an Idaho representative in 2016, but she was involved with the tea party movement when it first began in 2009. After the Affordable Care Act became law, Moon said she saw negative effects in her rural community when people were penalized for not having insurance. She also served as vice president of the Mini-Cassia Chamber of Commerce.

“I always thought the government should be there to help people, and not to hinder and deny them their pursuit of happiness, pursuit of livelihood and everything else,” she said.

What inspired her to run for the Idaho Legislature was what she viewed as mismanagement of Idaho forests leading to more damaging wildfires.

“To me it’s a real choice. We need to reduce the fuel in the forest, period,” Moon said.

Voter education, fending off feds would be Moon’s focus

Moon says she no longer sees the point in staying in the Idaho Legislature when it is “broken and controlled by leadership or the governor,” which is why she’s running for state office.

Moon is part of a group of legislators with high marks from the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative and libertarian group that gives each legislator a score based on how they vote on particular bills during the legislative session. She has a 94% score based on the 2022 session.

The Legislature is also broken because of the Senate, Moon says, since several bills that passed the House did not receive hearings in the Senate this session, including a bill Moon drafted related to election laws. The first version of her election bills would have removed the option of same-day registration for Idahoans at the polls, something she did not mention when she introduced the bill, but after hearing pushback on that idea and other parts of the bill, Moon introduced a version that eventually passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 47-21.

The bill would have prohibited the use of student identification cards for voting and done away with the option for a voter to sign a legal affidavit to verify their identity. Individuals who registered at the polls on Election Day would have been required to prove citizenship to vote.

“In working with the Secretary of State and the Idaho Transportation Department on (the details), we came up with, I think, a perfect bill. I took comments from county clerks around the state, so I did my due diligence,” Moon said. “We did get it through the House pretty much along party lines. Then it went over to Senate State Affairs, and it was locked away in a drawer.”

Moon spent much of the 2022 legislative session talking about election security and joined nine other Idaho legislators to sign a letter written by Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers calling for a 50-state audit of the 2020 election results.

Moon: ‘People know where I stand’

Moon said she doesn’t believe there was widespread voter fraud in Idaho in 2020but during the legislative session, she said on the House floor that there were reports of Canadians voting in elections in Idaho, a claim the Idaho Secretary of State’s office said was not true.

During an interview with the Idaho Capital Sun, Moon said she never said there were Canadians flooding into Idaho to vote, and acknowledged there was only one recorded case of a voter in Ada County who was from Canada and attempted to vote.

In Idaho, she said voter education would be her focus to help people understand how elections work, and she would be vigilant about warding off any attempts at federal interference in Idaho elections.

“When (President Joe) Biden comes to this state and says, ‘We’re going to nationalize your elections,’ I will say, ‘No, you are not,” Moon said. “We have Biden for another 33 months, and it will happen. And I’m ready for it.”

Democrats in the U.S. Congress have promoted the Freedom to Vote Act and other voting rights bills that would change certain voting laws, but no bills have passed both chambers of Congress to date.

Moon says her background in timber and mining will be valuable experience to bring to the Land Board, because she understands the logging industry and its relationship to federal lands. She said her wide and diverse background has prepared her for this position, and her constituents have seen that she is a hard worker who makes her opinions known.

“People know where I stand. I’m very black and white; there’s no gray area,” Moon said. “I don’t like injustice; I don’t like seeing wrongs be perpetuated. I want things to be fair, and I want people to trust the system and believe we’re here to help.”

MARY SOUZA: Souza says life with brothers gave her a toughness for politics

Souza was the only girl among seven boys in her family, which she says toughened her up for the rough and tumble aspects of political life.

She graduated from Pacific Lutheran University with a bachelor’s degree in nursing and worked as a cardiac nurse before earning a master’s degree in health education.

After several years in the nursing field, Souza stepped away to help her husband with his burgeoning event planning business, known today as DE Expo and Event Services. What was supposed to be a short couple of years offering her help turned into 15 years, Souza said, and the business is what brought them to Coeur d’Alene in the 1990s.

The Coeur d’Alene Resort had just opened when they moved, she said, and asked the company to help with Christmas decorations. That turned into a longer contract, and the couple settled in Coeur d’Alene, where they raised four children.

Her community involvement eventually led her to take a seat on the local planning and zoning commission, and a run for Coeur d’Alene mayor. While she didn’t win that race, it prompted state-level Republican party officials to ask her to consider running for the Idaho Senate in the 2014 election, where she’s served ever since.

“It is a really good spot for me. I fit well, I love the work and the people,” Souza said. “They are some of the best, deep character, personal integrity people I’ve ever met.”

Souza has sponsored 15 bills related to elections

Souza said her passion for elections and election law began in 2009, while she was writing a political column for the Coeur d’Alene Press and following a City Council election that turned into a court battle.

“My eyes were about popping out of my head with some of the things that were being uncovered in this court case,” Souza said. “I was of the same mind that a lot of people are that we just need to trust our election system, because it’s very solid and trustworthy, and when these weaknesses were brought out, it really stunned me.”

Over the past eight years in the Idaho Senate, Souza sponsored 15 bills related to elections, four of which were introduced in the 2022 session. Two of those bills died in the House of Representatives and two were held in the Senate for different political reasons, she said. One other bill she sponsored did become law, but it was more of a “stealth bill,” she said, because it gave the Idaho Legislature the authority to intervene in legal challenges to an Idaho statute.

“This law now will give the state Legislature in Idaho the express right, the automatic right to intervene legally in any challenge to an existing law, be that elections or not elections, if the Legislature so chooses,” Souza said. Without the law, a judge would have to allow the Legislature to intervene.

Souza: More can be done to secure Idaho elections

Souza often mentions out-of-state grant funding during the 2020 election as a problem she solved as a senator. The Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit organization in Illinois, granted more than $750,000 to 20 of 44 counties across Idaho in 2020 to help with election administration during the COVID-19 pandemic. As Ada County clerk, McGrane identified the funding opportunity and sent it to other clerks to apply.

Souza calls the grant dollars “Zuck Bucks” because the nonprofit organization received $350 million in funding from Facebook founder and Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. While Souza says there are no indications any of the grant dollars were used nefariously, she sponsored a bill in 2021 to make it illegal for counties to accept money from private entities for election administration purposes. That bill passed into law in 2021.

But more could be done to secure Idaho’s election process, Souza says, including updating and clarifying old Idaho Code language, changing voter identification laws, creating a better method for reviewing voter registration lists and making it illegal to deliver a certain number of ballots for other people

“I just think people need to know that Idaho elections need to be secured, and we have weaknesses in our system,” Souza said. “Even though we were not one of the swing states and didn’t have horrible things happening (in the 2020 election), we have the potential for them here and we have the beginnings of them here.”

North Idaho perspective would be valuable to Land Board, Souza says

As a resident of North Idaho, Souza said her perspective would be unique to the Land Board, since the northern area of the state is prime territory for the timber and mining industries.

“There’s never been a member of the Land Board in Idaho history, that anyone can tell me about, that has been from North Idaho,” Souza said.

Management of fuels in Idaho forests is an important issue she said she’d like to work on, and so is adding more leasing flexibility to mining operations. Her 37 years of business experience would also lend well to the business division of the secretary’s office, she said.

“I understand how government regulations and rules can get in the way (of business). They can help or they can hurt, and I think as government elected officials, we have to be sure we are not hurting any business in Idaho,” Souza said.