Secretary of State Ben Ysursa reflects on 40 years of Idaho elections

The retiring secretary of state laments declining turnout, but says the Gem State makes casting a ballot easy.

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comApril 6, 2014 

cenarrusa, st. john's, funeral

Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, shown Oct. 4 at the funeral service for Pete Cenarrusa, said he won't seek a fourth term.



    Secretary of State Ben Ysursa says his endorsement of Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane over three other Republicans will play no role in his office's administration of the May 20 primary.

    "Within these walls, it's all by the books," Ysursa said from his office at the Capitol. "I think I've proven that over 40 years."

    Ysursa has no on-the-scene role in counting ballots, except in extraordinary cases of recounts.

    "That's done by my 44 partners in the county clerks' offices," he said.

    Added Ysursa: "People who know me know that the fact that I think Mr. McGrane is the best candidate and should be nominated will have nothing to do with the duties of my office."

June will be a big month for Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. He'll celebrate his 65th birthday and mark 40 years in office - 28 as the closest aide to the late Secretary Pete Cenarrusa and a dozen as Cenarrusa's successor and Idaho's top election official.

He'll have put to bed the last of the 21 primaries. Just one contest will remain - the November election to decide who will be the first secretary since 1967 without roots in northern Spain.

"It will obviously be a non-Basque," Ysursa joked Tuesday as he announced his support for Republican Phil McGrane. "So it's even more important to watch."

Kidding aside, Ysursa fought back emotion as he spoke of the office's tradition of fairness. Just behind him, his wife, Penny, who worked for Cenarrusa and met her husband on the job in 1974, teared up as a Capitol crowd loudly applauded Ysursa.

On Friday, Ysursa was the monthly speaker at Idaho GOP headquarters. He said he was proud to be part of efforts to make voting easy in Idaho, including election-day registration, an affidavit for voters without photo ID to swear to their identity, and "no excuse" absentee voting for anyone who wants it.

The first spate of absentee ballots for the May 20 primary were mailed Friday.

But Ysursa will leave office troubled by declining voter turnout, particularly among the young.

"It boils down to candidates, issues, competition," he said. "How about just exercising one of your duties as a citizen of the United States that cherishes the freedom to vote? The younger generation has been caught in a cycle of nonvoting and that bothers a lot of us who think participation is the essence of democracy."


Idaho's high-water mark was 1980, when President Reagan unseated President Carter and GOP Rep. Steve Symms upset four-term Democratic Sen. Frank Church by 4,300 votes out of 440,000 cast. Seventy-seven percent of registered voters cast ballots. Of the voting-age population, 69 percent participated, ranking Idaho No. 2 behind Minnesota.

The 2008 presidential election equaled the 77 percent of registered voters mark, but just 61 percent of those old enough to vote did so. In 2012, the figures dropped to 74 percent and 58 percent, respectively.

Turnout has fallen more in party primaries. In the 12 primaries between 1980 and 2002, turnout averaged 32 percent. In the five elections since, the average dipped to 26 percent.

The closed Republican primary in 2012 was the worst ever, 24 percent. After fighting for years to keep his party's primary open, Ysursa in 2011 finally lost a federal lawsuit brought by the Idaho Republican Party. Democrats don't require party registration.

"I think (the closed primary) has a dampening effect," Ysursa said. "People call up and say, 'Do I have to sign up and declare a party? Well, I'm not going to do it!' "

Ysursa said this May 20 is the "first real acid test," because it is the second closed election and one with competitive races at the top of the ticket.


Ysursa forecasts 27 percent turnout.

"We're going to be not necessarily satisfied, but fairly happy, if we get a 27 percent turnout," Ysursa told the GOP group. "That's kind of a sad commentary."

Regarding campaign finance, Ysursa said the U.S. Supreme Court looks ready to repeal contribution limits that currently stand at $2,600 per person for federal elections and $5,000 for statewide candidates.

"I think you'll see a move away from contribution limits and maybe more instantaneous disclosure," Ysursa said. Idaho is "in the embryo stage" of online filing. "As that develops, there will be a system if folks want instantaneous reporting."

One technology Ysursa won't endorse is Internet or electronic voting.

"We have to have an auditable paper trail," he said. "It would be from my cold, dead hands around a paper trail before we go to Internet voting. Until somebody can prove to me that it's 110 percent hack-proof, we don't need to go there."

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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