Idaho legislative committee calls for new restrictions on absentee ballot request forms
If new bill in Idaho passes, only county clerks and state elections officials could distribute forms
Idaho State Capitol building on Jan. 11, 2023. (Otto Kitsinger for the Idaho Capital Sun)
The Idaho Legislature’s House State Affairs Committee advanced a bill Tuesday over the objections from the Secretary of State’s Office that would greatly restrict who can distribute absentee ballot request forms.
If House Bill 259 is passed into law, only a county clerk, election official, officer or employee of the state authorized by law would be able to distribute absentee ballot application forms. The bill specifically says nongovernmental entities shall not distribute absentee ballot applications unless they are specifically authorized by state or federal law.
That means that spouses, parents, other family members, nursing home staff members, roommates, neighbors, co-workers, voting advocacy groups, political parties and anyone else would be banned from distributing absentee ballot application forms.
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Rep. Kevin Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, sponsored House Bill 259, saying he feels strongly that political campaigns should not be allowed to distribute absentee ballot applications.
Andrus’ bill goes further, though. It prohibits everyone — not just political campaigns — from distributing absentee ballot applications unless they are a county clerk, election official or an officer or employee of the state specifically authorized to distribute the absentee ballot application forms.
Secretary of State’s Office opposes new restrictions on absentee ballot applications
All three people who testified during a public hearing on the bill Tuesday at the Idaho State Capitol in Boise were opposed to the bill.
Jason Lehosit, deputy policy director for the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office, said Idaho’s existing system already succeeds at balancing access and security.
“This legislation gives more control to government and adds unneeded red tape and regulation to a process which has already been working,” Lehosit told legislators.
If the bill is passed into law, Lehosit worried it would block family members from giving another family member an absentee ballot request form, churches would be blocked from passing out absentee ballot request forms and military officials would not be allowed to pass out the request forms to service members.
Lehosit also expressed concern the bill adds an extra step to request an absentee ballot and could overwhelm the county clerks offices across the state. For the 2022 general election, 129,210 absentee ballots were cast in Idaho, about 21% of the 599,493 total ballots cast.
“We have 44 county clerks with limited staff, (and) we have over a million voters in the state of Idaho,” Lehosit told legislators. “That is a lot of absentee requests to be putting out there.”
After Lehosit told legislators the Secretary of State’s Office has a very good system in place that has worked for decades, House State Affairs Committee Chairman Brent Crane, R-Nampa, called Lehosit out and said the Secretary of State’s Office is not on the same page as his committee.
“I think that is where there is a disconnect between the Secretary of State’s Office and this committee,” Crane told Lehosit. “You guys feel like there is a good process with regards to absentee (voting). We don’t. We feel like that there needs to be a lot more security around it.”
Crane said absentee voting creates risk for fraud, and the state shouldn’t wait until there is a problem with voter fraud to try to prevent it.
Kendal Shaber also testified in opposition to the bill, saying she has passed out thousands of absentee ballot requests as a member of the League of Women Voters.
Shaber said having other groups pass out absentee ballot request forms can make a huge difference for county elections offices that are strapped for staff, time and resources.
Shaber told legislators that representatives from the League of Women Voters — a nonpartisan organization that works to protect and expand voting rights — frequently visit retirement communities and nursing homes to distribute absentee ballot request forms to Idahoans who cannot drive to a polling place, have low vision, have mobility issues or have Parkinson’s Disease but still have a fundamental right to vote.
“It is difficult for people in these circumstances anyway, and then to make it harder by playing hide and seek with the absentee ballot application just doesn’t make any sense,” Shaber told legislators.
Kathy Dawes of Moscow also testified in opposition to the bill, saying she helps distribute the absentee ballot request forms to students at the University of Idaho.
In the end, the House State Affairs Committee voted to send House Bill 259 to the floor with a do-pass recommendation. Reps. Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa; Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens; and John Gannon, D-Boise, voted against advancing the bill.
House Bill 259 could reach the floor of the Idaho House of Representatives for a vote later this week or next. If the Idaho House passes the bill, it would be sent to the Idaho Senate for consideration. If it passes both the Idaho House and Idaho Senate, House Bill 259 would go to Gov. Brad Little’s desk for final consideration.
Multiple bills in the Idaho Legislature would change voting or elections procedures
The absentee ballot request form bill is one of several bills Republican legislators are pushing this year to make changes to voting procedures or consolidate elections.
House Bill 205 would eliminate the use of absentee ballots for convenience and restrict the use of absentee ballots only to voters who are serving in the military, serving a religious mission out of the country, occupying a second home, having to work or attend university or who are sick, disabled or hospitalized.
House Bill 124 would remove student IDs as an acceptable form of identification for voting in Idaho.
House Bill 137 would eliminate the option for voters to sign an affidavit form to verify their identity if they don’t have ID with them.
Senate Joint Resolution 101 is a proposed amendment to the Idaho Constitution that would increase the threshold to qualify a ballot initiative or referendum for an election.
House Bill 58 would get rid of the March and August election dates that local school districts use for bond and levy elections and push those nonpartisan elections to either the March primary election or November general election.
House Bill 138 would move Idaho’s presidential primary election back from March until May.
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