Lawerence Denney wants to bring optional online voter registration to Idaho, saying it could give people more time to register before Election Day and cut down on waiting for same-day registration at the polls .
He thinks that the state’s financial disclosure reporting requirements, which state Republicans officially want to see eased, should remain as is, and that employees of executive departments and other state entities whose job duties include lobbying lawmakers or agencies should have to register as lobbyists.
And he worries that the $2 million statewide Republican presidential primary next March, created on a party-line vote in the Legislature earlier this year, might hurt voter turnout in the regular state primaries that come two months later.
Denney, a Republican, is coming up on six months — six quiet months — into his first term as Idaho’s secretary of state. Some thought he would take office like a bull in a china shop, cleaning house, shaking things up. Instead, he asked his predecessor’s entire staff to stay on — and it did. And he kept a decidedly low profile.
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That predecessor, Ben Ysursa, served 12 years in the post; Pete Cenarrusa, the guy before him, 36 years. Before Denney’s election last fall, many fretted that the one-time House speaker, known as a sharp-elbowed partisan with a bruising style, might bring that no-holds-barred politics to a famously nonpartisan office. Those fears might have been unfounded.
“I think some were pleasantly surprised — the transition’s been a smooth one,” said Mike Moyle of Star, the House Republican majority leader who served in the same position under Denney. “I think everybody had these fears, but he’s not that kind of guy. He’s a straight shooter, a solid individual who does his homework.”
Despite a long tenure in government — 20 years in the Legislature, including nine consecutive two-year terms, three of them as speaker — there is a lot of homework in Denney’s new role. He reviewed the items on his desk during a recent interview: a book on state land trusts, lawsuits against the state, codes on sunshine and election laws, budget papers and writings on the state’s 1889 constitutional convention.
“One of the first things I did was ask Tim, ‘So tell me what a typical day is going to be like’ ” Denney said, referring to longtime Deputy Secretary of State Tim Hurst. “And he said, ‘There is no typical day.’ And certainly my perceptions of the office were not what it actually entails.
“Thank goodness all the staff agreed to stay on, and I think that’s why it’s been quiet, because everything is getting done just the way it was, and I’m still learning the business.”
Denney said asking the 27-person department to stay on was “the smartest decision I made.” Two have left due to retirements, but the rest remain.
“I’m happy with the way things have gone — he still listens to me,” Hurst kidded later. “We’d been on opposite sides of election legislation in the past. I wasn’t sure where he was on that. He’s taken the time to learn both election law and campaign finance law. And now he’s coming forward with some of the things he thinks need to be addressed. I was happy that he took the time to learn more about it before he started to jump in saying we need to make these changes.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but remember: This is the former three-term speaker who was deposed by his own caucus for heavy-handedness, including unilaterally removing committee chairmen who failed to toe the line.
“ ‘The Boss’ may be losing his title,” said James Weatherby, emeritus professor of political science at Boise State University and longtime watcher of Idaho politics, using the nickname Denney earned as speaker. “Denney appears to have done what he promised to do on the campaign trail, and that is, have a seamless transition into the Secretary of State’s Office as a nonpartisan officeholder.”
Denney acknowledged that his reputation preceded him.
“During the campaign there were a lot of people worried about me being so partisan and how I would handle that,” he said. “There was one (campaign finance) complaint that came in about the last election, and I knew the players and I said (to the staff): ‘I don’t want to know anything about this. You handle it.’ And they did. And on issues that could be perceived as partisan, I think that’s what I have to do.”
STAYING THE COURSE
If some had cause for concern, chalk it up in part to the nearly half-century of consistency in the office delivered by Denney’s two predecessors. Cenarrusa served eight terms in the Legislature from 1950 to 1966, including three terms as speaker, like Denney. He became secretary of state in 1967. Ysursa was Cenarrusa’s chief deputy for 27 of those years, beginning in 1976, and took over the top job in 2003, serving three terms.
“I think a key point is the people you have working around you,” said Ysursa, who backed Denney’s opponents last year. “I think Lawerence did a good job of laying low and listening. I commend him for that.”
If his first six months have been quiet, Denney has bigger plans for the rest of the year and beyond. The Secretary of State’s Office oversees elections, handles business registrations, files laws and executive orders from the governor, administers the state’s “sunshine law” for campaign finance disclosure, and handles various other legal filings and documents, such as health care directives. He has ideas on most of those topics.
“We’re still finding areas where there are things that need to be changed,” he said. “Next year I think we’re going to bring significant legislation.”
Besides action to institute online voter registration and clarify lobbyist registration requirements, Denney sees some possible efficiencies.
He notes that his office sends out 11,000 pieces of mail a month and budgets $100,000 a year for postage. He wants to see more correspondence conducted by email and make more standard forms fully submittable online. The office is one-third of the way through a transition to a new computer system that will support that effort.
He also wants out-of-state campaign contributors identified in financial disclosures and is weighing a proposal to allow for electronic notarization — meaning someone could get a document notarized without appearing in person before a notary.
Significant changes indeed, but not disruptive, he predicts.
“If everything is working well,” he said, “no one notices.”