Study up on Idaho's secretary of state race

Here's a guide to the upcoming primary and advice for navigating the crowded field of candidates.

jsowell@idahostatesman.comApril 6, 2014 

Idaho Secretary of State candidates: Lawerence Denney, Evan Frasure, Mitch Toryanski, Phil McGrane, and Holli Woodings.

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  • Once again, the Idaho Statesman will offer an online voters' guide to the primaries with profiles on state and local candidates and their thoughts on key issues. Visit IdahoStatesman.com/elections starting at the end of April for that guide; for now, here's a quick look at the field for secretary of state:

    REPUBLICANS

    Lawerence Denney, of Midvale, served in the Army in Vietnam and received the Bronze Star. He later worked at a lumber mill and on a ranch before buying the family dairy farm and milking cows for 14 years.

    Denney was first elected to the Idaho House in 1990 and has remained in office since. He served as assistant majority leader and majority leader, then three terms as House speaker before his GOP colleagues - upset about matters such as Denney donating money to opponents of incumbents - voted to replace him with Rep. Scott Bedke of Oakley before the 2013 session.

    Evan Frasure, of Pocatello, spent more than 30 years as a real estate broker. He earned a bachelor's degree in secondary education from Idaho State University.

    He works as a government teacher at Century High School in Pocatello. He represented the city in the Idaho House and later in the Senate from 1990 to 2002, ending his years in office with an unsuccessful run for secretary of state. More recently, he co-chaired the state redistricting commission after the 2010 census and has served in other public roles.

    Mitch Toryanski, of Boise, was a criminal prosecutor and deputy attorney general before serving a term as a state senator in 2011-12. At the attorney general's office, he counseled the secretary of state's office and the treasurer's office.

    Toryanski is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and spent 30 years as a commissioned officer. He served as inspector general of the Idaho National Guard.

    As chief deputy clerk in Ada County, Phil McGrane, of Garden City, oversees the county's election, courts, auditor and recorder divisions.

    He earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Washington and a law degree from the University of Denver. He is working on a master's degree in public administration from Boise State University.

    DEMOCRAT

    Holli Woodings, of Boise, grew up in Oregon but spent holidays and summers with her father in Boise. She later attended BSU, earning a bachelor's degree in English. She was the first member of her family to graduate from college.

    She served as a project manager in the renewable energy industry and later founded the Woodings Group, an energy development consulting firm. She was elected to the Idaho House in 2012.

For the first time in nearly five decades, the names Cenarrusa or Ysursa won't appear on the May 20 primary ballot for Idaho secretary of state.

Instead, four Republican candidates and one Democrat are seeking nominations and the chance to succeed Ben Ysursa, who will retire after 12 years as head of the office.

Ysursa honed his skills at the side of Pete Cenarrusa, who served in office for 36 years before retiring in 2003. Cenarrusa, who earlier spent nine terms in the Idaho House - three terms as speaker - was Idaho's longest-serving public official ever. He died last year at age 95.

Neither Cenarrusa nor Ysursa ever faced a serious election challenge, said Jasper LiCalzi, a professor of political economy at the College of Idaho in Caldwell.

"It's almost uncharted territory," he said of this year's situation, with five candidates hoping to move into the office on the second floor of the Capitol's east wing.

WHAT IS A SECRETARY OF STATE?

The secretary serves as Idaho's chief elections officer. The office also handles business registrations and files legislative bills, proclamations and the governor's executive orders. It also administers campaign finance and lobbyist disclosure laws.

The secretary of state sits on the Idaho Land Board with the governor, superintendent of public instruction, attorney general and state controller. The board provides direction to the Idaho Department of Lands in managing more than 2.4 million acres of trust lands that help fund the state's K-12 public schools and a variety of other public institutions.

Since 1967, when Gov. Don Samuelson picked Cenarrusa to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Edson Deal, Idaho has had just two secretaries of state. Washington and Wyoming have gone through five secretaries of state in that time; Oregon and Nevada have had six, Montana seven.

Utah abolished its secretary of state in 1976. The state's lieutenant governor carries out the duties handled by the secretary of state in some other states.

WHAT QUALITIES SHOULD VOTERS LOOK FOR?

Cenarrusa and Ysursa built an outstanding reputation for competence, fairness and nonpartisanship, LiCalzi said. Although both were Republicans, they were widely respected by Democrats, members of other parties and independents.

"It's not a partisan position. You want people who are competent and can carry out the job," LiCalzi said.

Juliet Carlisle, a political science professor at the University of Idaho in Moscow, said voters should pick the candidate they feel would do the most to encourage more Idaho residents to register and vote.

"Here, you have to go online, print out a form and mail it in. That's an impediment," she said.

Next door in Oregon, residents with an Oregon-issued driver's license can register online.

"Why can't we register online?" Carlisle asked.

Both Oregon and Washington offer vote by mail, so voters can either place their completed ballots in the mail or take them in person to an election station. Fears of widespread fraud have not panned out, and both states have higher voter turnout, Carlisle said.

All five candidates should be asked where they stand on those issues, she said.

Other than supervising elections, the secretary of state isn't a high-profile position, Carlisle said.

She encourages voters to learn as much as they can about a candidate's background, including education, work experience and general philosophies.

"Become as informed and as engaged as you can," Carlisle said.

WHO WILL BE VOTING?

Turnout for primary elections in non-presidential election years tends to be light. A relatively small number of voters in the Republican and Democratic parties have chosen their nominees in past years.

In Ysursa's three primary elections (2002, 2006 and 2010), the turnout never exceeded 32 percent of registered voters. Four years ago, 27 percent cast ballots, one percentage point higher than in 2006.

This year, the number of people casting Republican primary ballots could be even lower. The party closed its primaries to everyone but registered Republicans starting in 2012. In the past, members of other parties and independent voters could choose to take part in the Republican primary.

Still, Jim Weatherby, a Boise State University professor emeritus and longtime Idaho political observer, wonders if Republican interest might rise because of state Sen. Russ Fulcher's challenge to sitting Gov. Butch Otter. That and some contested legislative races could bring more people to the polls, he said.

WHO IS RUNNING?

The only competitive primary for the position is the Republican one, in which former state Sen. Evan Frasure of Pocatello is the only candidate who has previously run for statewide office. He was Ysursa's opponent in the 2002 GOP primary, the first after Cenarrusa announced his retirement. Ysursa received 66 percent of the vote to 34 percent for Frasure.

The other Republican candidates are Rep. Lawerence Denney of Midvale, Ada County Chief Deputy Clerk Phil McGrane of Garden City, and former Sen. Mitch Toryanski of Boise.

State Rep. Holli Woodings of Boise is running unopposed in the Democratic primary.

"It will be interesting to see who comes out of the pack," Weatherby said. "Right now, it appears to be McGrane, but there's a lot of time left for the others to make their case."

The boost for McGrane came last week when both Ysursa and former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt endorsed him, Weatherby said. Clerks in 24 of Idaho's 44 counties, including McGrane's boss, Ada County Clerk Chris Rich, also support him.

Endorsements are common in political races but it's questionable whether they sway voters, Weatherby said.

In this case, though, they might help McGrane because of the respect that both Ysursa and Batt command. County clerks also could introduce him to politically connected folks throughout the state, LiCalzi said.

John Sowell: 377-6423, Twitter: @IDS_Sowell

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