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Idaho lawmakers mixed on voting-related bills

James Dawson/Boise State Public Radio

The latest two to be acted on at the Statehouse in Boise involve an expanded statewide voters' guide and ranked choice voting.

Idaho lawmakers have had a busy week when it comes to bills related to voting and voter information.

The most recent action came Thursday morning when the House State Affairs Committee agreed to send a bill that bans local governments from allowing ranked choice and instant runoff voting in their jurisdictions to the full House for debate.

"This is a preventative measure," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Dale Hawkins (R-Benewah County). "This is a voting system that's being spread around the country, I would say a little like a virus. It's destabilizing people's normal voting abilities and it's, according to the people in some of these states that have it, very harmful."

Ranked choice voting is in place in some form in Alaska, Maine and more than 20 local governments in the U.S., including Seattle, Portland and Corvallis, Oregon.

Proponents say it's a complicated system that confuses voters.

On Wednesday, the Idaho Senate voted to give permission for Secretary of State Phil McGrane to begin printing a statewide voters’ guide for even-year primary and general elections.

McGrane's office prints a voter pamphlet that focuses on statewide ballot measures, such as initiatives and referenda. He wants to include information about federal, state and legislative candidates. He's asking lawmakers to appropriate $750,000/year to cover the costs of creating and mailing guides for the May primary and November general elections.

The bill's co-sponsor, Sen. Lori Den Hartog (R-Meridian), said this is a topic her constituents often ask her about. The goal, she said, is to provide an opportunity for all candidates to provide information on a forum that doesn't have a political bias.

Opponents argue the guide isn't needed, given that political groups of all stripes provide voter information, including how incumbents voted on specific bills.

“Does the state of Idaho need to spend three-quarters of a million dollars of taxpayer money on yet another voter guide?” asked Sen. Brian Lenney (R-Nampa).

Den Hartog acknowledged the other voter education options, but most have obvious biases.

"There's this pay-to-play model that exists, so if candidates want their information in a certain document, they can pay a certain amount of money and get their information out in what may look like an official voter guide," she said. "This legislation doesn't preclude any of those things from continuing to happen. What this would do is just be a simple resource and direct voters where to find more information."

The bill was approved 24-to-11.

Also this week, Idaho lawmakers reacted coolly to two school election-related bills proposed by Coeur d’Alene Republican Representative Joe Alfieri.

On Tuesday, the House Education Committee chose not to introduce a bill that would require appointed state Board of Education members to run for their seats in partisan elections. That would be a change from the current system in which the authority to appoint the board's seven citizen members rests with the governor. The state school superintendent is also a member.

Alfieri's proposal would have them be elected by district. He proposes dividing the state into seven districts and electing one board member from each.

The provision that requires candidates declare a party affliliation bothered a few committee members, including Boise Democrat Sonia Galaviz.

“I am concerned about the partisanship and the campaigning and the dollars that would be spent towards this when we look to the state board to be a steady hand," she said.

Alfieri acknowledged the move would inject more politics into the process of picking board members.

“We have to recognize that most of what we do is going to have a political aspect to it and what I’m looking to do here is to make it more fair, politically, across the entire spectrum and to provide for better representation of the people, rather than going through a bureaucratic structure," he said.

A majority of the members of the House Education Committee joined Galaviz in voting not to print Alfieri’s bill or give it a hearing.

On Wednesday, Alfieri was back. He asked the House State Affairs Committee to approve his bill to require local school board elections to become partisan races. He also proposed to shorten school board members’ terms from four years to two.

“The reasons for making this change, frankly, are to provide a little bit more transparency in what’s going on in district elections and to allow the public to be more engaged in what’s going on," he said.

As with the state Board bill, opponents said elected school officials should not be beholden to political parties. They also disliked shortening the length of terms, saying new board members have a long learning curve once they take office.

The committee voted to hold Altieri’s bill in committee until he makes some changes to it.

One of the Northwest's most seasoned reporters is returning to his SPR roots. Doug Nadvornick will be heard frequently on KPBX and KSFC reporting on local news.