Blue Valley Mobile Home Park, a community of about 900 people in Boise’s far southeast corner, was annexed into the city in 2014. But when it came to city elections, Blue Valley voters were disenfranchised.
A clerical error kept about 150 voters off the city voting rolls in the 2015 city election and 190 in the 2017 election, according to a county elections official, even though property owners were paying city taxes by then.
Voters in Blue Valley were added to city rolls in June, Elections Director David Levine said Wednesday, after Blue Valley residents realized what had happened and complained. He said officials are looking into how the problem occurred and who is responsible.
One resident, Jennifer Wiley, told the Statesman that she went to her polling place to vote in the 2015 mayoral race just to be turned away.
An Idaho Statesman reporter who reviewed voting rolls was unable to find a single Blue Valley address on more than a hundred pages of voting rolls for November city elections in those years — the first two elections in which Blue Valley residents should have been able to vote.
Blue Valley, along with other homes near the neighborhood, is assigned to Precinct 1803 in Ada County. When Wiley got to her polling place, poll workers told her she wasn’t eligible to vote in the city election.
They ended up calling Phil McGrane, then chief deputy for the Ada County clerk, who agreed that she wasn’t able to vote because her address wasn’t in the city.
“I was so mad,” Wiley said. “I paid Boise city taxes, and I wanted to vote for mayor. Whether it went my way or not was immaterial. I wanted to practice my civil right.”
Wiley said she called McGrane again after leaving the polling place. She said she left a voicemail about how ridiculous the problem was but never heard back. McGrane said Friday in response that it’s not uncommon for him to speak with voters on election day, and while he does not remember the specific conversation, he typically has “a good history of returning phone calls.”
“It felt like being defeated,” Wiley said.
McGrane is now the county clerk, overseeing the elections office. He told the Statesman in a phone interview Friday that the error “is extremely unfortunate” and reflect some of the challenges the office faces while administering elections.
The elections office added a position about a year ago to ensure the accuracy of voting roles. McGrane said officials in the elections office use a variety of sources to verify who can vote in which elections, including notification from cities and taxing districts.
“We work very hard to keep the roles up to date, but there are times when we don’t catch an annexation,” McGrane said. “I think it’s really unfortunate it didn’t get caught earlier.”
City boundaries change often, McGrane said, not just in Boise but all of Ada County, which can make them difficult to keep track of.
Mike Journee, spokesman for Mayor David Bieter, said that as far as he was aware, the county was tasked with ensuring that voters appeared on the rolls.
“We want everyone in our city to have their opportunity to elect their representatives, to have their right to vote,” Journee said in a phone interview Thursday. “It’s a shame this happened. I wish we had known about it sooner so it could have been fixed sooner.”
Levine said the number of people left out is believed to be smaller than the difference in any single election. Election results support that statement.
“That doesn’t excuse anything, however,” Levine said.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
Why did we report this story?
Dozens and dozens of people were denied the ability to vote in the city even though they were city residents. They paid taxes to the city of Boise but were turned away at the polling booth. The right to vote is considered one of the most important in the United States, so when local residents were denied that, it was important to bring that to light. Read more by clicking the arrow in the upper right.
How did we report this story?
After getting a call from a concerned Blue Valley resident about the problem, Idaho Statesman reporter Hayley Harding went to the Ada County elections office and went through poll books, which are where one signs when they vote. Harding went through the books for the November 2015 and November 2017 election, neither of which contained Blue Valley addresses.
She talked to more than a dozen government officials about what happened and what comes next. She also talked to several residents of Blue Valley, including some who are not quoted here, to learn their stories and get a fuller picture of what happened and how it affected people.
Who did we interview for this story?
Along with concerned Blue Valley residents, Harding interviewed many government officials at all local levels of government.
Harding talked to David Levine, county elections director, along with others in the Ada County elections office. She talked to Mike Journee, spokesman for Mayor David Bieter. She also talked to many, many officials at the Ada County assessor’s office, the treasurer’s office, the clerk’s office and the county public information office. Harding also reached out to officials at both the secretary of state’s office (which administers election law) and the attorney general’s office.
Because the issue is so complex, it wasn’t easy to find answers to the questions Harding was asking. Many officials directed her to other government offices. In several cases, no one was available to comment on the topic.
How do I share my own stories and concerns?
If you think you may have ever been wrongly denied the right to vote in Boise or in Ada County, be it through a clerical error or for some other reason, reach out to Hayley Harding at email@example.com. Her beats include Boise city government and Ada County government, so if you have any other things you’d like investigated along those lines, she’s happy to take a look.
In 2015, city residents voted for mayor and three of the six city council seats. They also voted to raise taxes for two years to raise $10 million to protect water quality, native wildlife and open space. In 2017, city voters chose the other three council members and voted on a second levy after the city of Boise erred and did not tell the county to add the levy to property owner’s tax bills.
Levine said Wednesday that he had not yet contacted the Secretary of State’s office, which is tasked with administering state election laws in Idaho.
Bonnie Hardey, the president of the South Eisenman Neighborhood Association and a resident of Blue Valley, said residents have “had to fight a little harder” just to get the rights traditionally granted to community members.
Blue Valley residents spent several months going before government boards, including the City Council, to fight a proposed trucking terminal from Ohio-based R+L Carriers that would have been built 50 feet from the closest Blue Valley neighbors. To solve the problem, the city announced in April that it would swap land with R+L Carriers to provide a similar property farther away from the park.
Hardey said she didn’t think the disenfranchisement and trucking dispute were connected, but learning that those making such decisions weren’t voted on by Blue Valley residents after months of battling the city was difficult.
“They should be compensated for this error,” Hardey said. “Whether it’s development in the neighborhood — we need sidewalks and better roads, we need a park. Or they should get reimbursed their taxes.”
It’s not clear if reimbursement is possible. Journee said the residents benefited from money paid for city services.
John Gannon, a state representative from a Boise district that does not include Blue Valley, said he was researching what potential consequences were. He called the disenfranchisement “an honest but serious mistake.”
A representative of the Idaho secretary of state’s office said no one was able to comment Thursday.