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‘That’s crazy:’ Governor’s race gets more Election Day votes than 2016 presidential vote

Ada County Elections Office gets record number of absentee ballots for a midterm election

The Ada County Elections Office began opening absentee ballots Monday, Nov. 5 for the Nov. 6, 2018 general election. "For a gubernatorial election, it's breaking all records," said Ada County Clerk Chris Rich.
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The Ada County Elections Office began opening absentee ballots Monday, Nov. 5 for the Nov. 6, 2018 general election. "For a gubernatorial election, it's breaking all records," said Ada County Clerk Chris Rich.

A whole lot of people turned out in Ada County to vote in Tuesday’s midterm election. So many that it may surprise you.

In the governor’s race, won by Lt. Gov. Brad Little of Emmett, 129,285 Idahoans cast ballots on Election Day. That’s more than the 125,233 who voted on Election Day in 2016, when Donald Trump won the presidency.

“That’s pretty crazy,” said Phil McGrane, Ada County’s chief deputy clerk, who won the clerk’s job Tuesday. “This was more like a presidential election than it was a midterm.”

The number of people who voted increased 46.8 percent, rising from 131,038 in the 2014 midterm election to 192,303 on Tuesday. Turnout increased from 62.6 percent of registered voters to 78.2 percent.

In part, the numerical increase reflects the county’s growing population. Registrations have risen by 15,478 since the 2016 presidential election and 36,472 since the 2014 midterm.

But the turnout reflects voter interest. This year, voters’ ballots included two statewide ballot measures of high interest, dealing with historical horse racing machines and Medicaid expansion. They had a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Paulette Jordan, who drew national attention because she is a Native American woman.

And they had other, more-or-less standard fare: two races for Ada County commissioner and two for the Ada County Highway District board, two requests for more money (a tax increase for the College of Western Idaho, a fee increase for ACHD), and the usual midterm slew of candidates running for lieutenant governor, attorney general and state superintendent of public instruction, the Legislature and judgeships.

Besides all that, they had Donald Trump. He wasn’t on the ballot, but he helped get out the vote on both sides of the political divide.

“While there are a lot of negatives to a polarized political environment, one consequence is more citizen activism and interest,” said Gary Moncrief, political science professor emeritus at Boise State University.“When people think the results have real consequences, they are more likely to participate.”

Digital media campaigns also helped get out the vote by targeting voters with highly specific messages, Moncrief said by email. The ability to target individuals with messages tailored to their interests is “huge now,” he said.

The propositions — especially Proposition 2, to expand Medicaid coverage, which passed — “seemed to motivate some people,” Moncrief said. “And, of course, the governor’s race, although not particularly close, did generate a lot of interest both inside and outside the state.”

Moncrief said it’s interesting that about 20 percent of voters cast their ballots before Tuesday.

“While officials in some states seem to engage voter-suppression efforts, most western states have made it easier to participate over the past decade or so by extending early voting and vote-by-mail and same-day registration,” he said.

Turnout was lower in more-conservative Canyon County, where 72 percent of its 89,114 registered voters went to the polls. Still, that was nearly 17 percentage points higher than the 55.3 percent who voted in the 2014 midterm.

Gem and Elmore counties also showed increases. In Gem County, turnout increased from 58 percent in 2014 to 69.6 percent Tuesday. In Elmore County, it increased from 53.4 percent to 63.6.

“It was the busiest day for us since Barack Obama was first elected in 2008,” said Vivian Garcia, an Elmore County elections specialist.

The Secretary of State’s office is working to compile statewide turnout numbers. Those figures were not available Tuesday.

The story below was published Nov. 6, 2018, under the headline, “A lot of Idahoans voted early this year. Officials still expect high turnout Tuesday.”

A total of 159,981 ballots were cast statewide before polls opened at 8 a.m. this morning, said Tim Hurst, chief deputy clerk at the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office. That’s 63 percent higher than four years ago, during the last midterm election.

“It’s issues and candidates that drive turnout,” Hurst said.

RELATED: A procrastinator’s guide to Idaho’s election

Republican Brad Little and Democrat Paulette Jordan are vying to replace three-term Gov. Butch Otter. Proposition 1 would reinstate historical horse racing machines while Proposition 2 would expand Medicaid coverage in the state. There are also races for U.S. representatives, state lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state superintendent of public instruction and legislative seats, among others.

Voters from Ada and Canyon counties accounted for nearly half of the early ballots submitted. Ada County ballots totaled 60,646, while Canyon County voters submitted 13,691 ballots, representing 46.5 percent of the statewide total.

Early voting was the big difference maker. While the number of absentee ballots cast by Ada County voters rose nearly 10 percent from 2014, early voters increased 246 percent, from 35,155 ballots cast, compared to 10,158 in 2014. Absentee ballots returned totaled 29,072 — 94 percent of those mailed to voters who requested them. In 2014, 26,517 absentee ballots were turned in.

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Chief Deputy Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane attributes the large early turnout to a couple of factors.

“There seems to be a lot of attention nationally on this election, just a lot of energy and then we have a lot of big things on our ballot,” he said. “The governor’s race seems really big, as well as the propositions.”

He expects the momentum to continue with a large turnout today.

“The reports I got and the photos I’ve seen showed we had some healthy lines right at 8 o’clock,” McGrane said.

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There’s usually a lull during the late morning and early afternoon and then it picks up again about 4 p.m. as people start getting off work and continues until the polls close at 8 p.m., he said.

Nampa resident Jill Linder arrived at the Karcher Church of the Nazarene to vote about 7:45 a.m. Four other people were in line ahead of her and there were 10 to 15 behind her when the polls opened at 8, she said.

“People seemed to be in good spirits, except one guy who seemed to complain about everything,” Linder said.

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @JohnWSowell.

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