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Bill to make permanent absentee ballot changes advances

Posted at 7:44 PM, Feb 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-16 18:06:53-05

BOISE, Idaho — Legislation to make permanent changes in Idaho’s absentee ballot counting procedure headed to the full Senate on Friday.

The Senate State Affairs Committee unanimously approved the measure intended to speed absentee vote counting, which was used in the last general election and spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers during an August special session approved a law allowing the opening and scanning of absentee ballots beginning seven days before Election Day. It passed unanimously in both the House and Senate and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Brad Little. But that law expired Dec. 31.

Election officials said the change allowed county clerks to quickly report results of the November election after receiving about 400,000 absentee ballots.

“You’ll see numerous election bills, I think, throughout this session, but the most important, I would argue, is this one,” Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane, the chair of the elections committee for the Idaho Association of County Recorders and Clerks, told lawmakers.

The law would also require that if any absentee ballots are opened before election day, they are maintained in an electronically accessed and secured area that is under 24-hour video surveillance livestreamed to the public. The law would require the video to be archived for at least 90 days after the election.

The livestream allows “ample opportunity for the public, candidates and others to observe that process to ensure the security of it as we do open and can those ballots,” McGrane said.

Election officials anticipated a huge surge in absentee ballots as Idaho voters feared going to polls because of the pandemic last November. Also, the number of actual polls decreased as poll workers, who tend to be older and more susceptible to serious illness if they contract the virus, opted not take part.

The November election arrived as coronavirus cases surged in the state. Little, a week before the election, ordered the state back into stage 3 restrictions to preserve hospital capacity as intertwined healthcare systems showed early signs of buckling.

Idaho officials encouraged absentee and early voting, and about 400,000 of Idaho’s 1 million registered voters used absentee ballots and another 100,000 voted early. In all, a record-breaking 880,000 ballots were cast.

The law allowing the opening and scanning of absentee ballots before Election Day “was extraordinarily helpful because it ensures that when we’re handling those ballots, we’re doing it methodically and intentionally rather than in the rush and under the pressure of doing it following the election,” McGrane said.