By sheer numbers, more Idahoans are turning out for statewide elections than ever before. (We’re a growing state, after all.)
But when it comes to the percentage of eligible voters (residents 18 and older) who make it to the polls, many Idaho counties lag behind the U.S. average, which the Pew Research Center puts at about 56 percent.
Where are Idaho’s most active voters? In remote rural counties. An analysis of data from recent statewide balloting — three primaries and three general elections — found residents of small, sparsely populated counties consistently cast the most votes per capita, while mid-sized counties in southern Idaho often have the fewest.
“It appears that people in the mountains vote the most,” said Phil McGrane, Ada County’s chief deputy clerk.
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Custer, Camas and Butte counties consistently come out on top. In some elections, nearly three-quarters of eligible voters cast ballots there.
In some ways, this trend seems counterintuitive. Matt Miles, who teaches political science at Brigham Young University-Idaho, pointed out that there’s a higher cost to voting in rural areas — geography can be an obstacle, as can limited equipment, staffing or time.
In many other ways, this data makes perfect sense, said Jeff Lyons, an assistant professor in the School of Public Service at Boise State University.
“In general, rural counties tend to be older than urban ones. And we know older people vote more than younger people,” he said.
Custer, Camas and Butte are also majority-Republican — though so is almost every other county in the state — and across the U.S., Republicans in general tend to vote at a higher rate than Democrats do, Lyons said. Many of the more active voting communities have strong agricultural and farming ties, professions that are politically engaged. And despite the costs to rural voting, there can be perks to casting a ballot in a small town or county, both Lyons and Miles said.
“In rural Madison County, I’ve never waited more than a second to vote,” Miles said. “And there’s a feeling of community. When your friends, family, all the people you know are (at the polling place), it’s a norm.”
Ada County falls somewhere in the middle. There are roughly 316,000 eligible voters in Ada County, and nearly 235,000 of them are currently registered to vote. On average, half of those 316,000 eligible voters actually cast a ballot in general elections — on par with Gem and Franklin counties. In contrast, many of Idaho’s other large counties (Canyon, Kootenai, Twin Falls) have some of the least-active voting populations in the state.
McGrane attributes some of Ada’s middle-of-the-road numbers to its status as an outlier in population size. But Lyons said county elections officials have “made a bunch of strides to make voting easier and lower cost.”
Ada likely also climbed up the list due to competitive elections, Miles said.
“When there’s actually a chance that your side can win, you get turnout. Democrats have more of a shot of winning in Ada County than anywhere else,” he said.
Which of Idaho’s 44 counties are at the bottom of the list? Jerome County has had the lowest voting participation in the last three general elections, with an average of 33 percent of eligible voters participating. Elmore, Owyhee, Minidoka and Canyon counties also regularly end up at the bottom of the list, averaging fewer than 40 percent of eligible voters casting a ballot.
Despite low showings for many Idaho counties, Lyons said our state can be proud of its voter turnout.
“For a non-presidential battleground state, we do have pretty solid turnout numbers. It’s pretty civically engaged, pretty participatory,” he said.