Boise is headed for a mayoral runoff election. Here’s how it will work


Editor’s note: With all precincts reporting Tuesday night, it became clear Boise would need a runoff election to decide the mayor race between Lauren McLean and current Mayor David Bieter because neither received a majority of votes. McLean received 45.7 percent; Bieter got 30.3. The following story was published before the election.

Correction: This mayoral runoff is not the city’s first. The Statesman has written a story looking at past runoffs.

Boise and Eagle voters head to their polling places Tuesday to elect their mayors. They may have to do the same thing again four weeks later.

If no candidate in either city gets a majority (50% of the vote plus one), city code calls for a runoff election between the two candidates who received the most votes. This year, Boise has seven mayoral candidates, four of whom have past government experience, leading many to believe the mayoral race could lead to a runoff.

That’s never happened in Boise before. Since Ada County took over running elections for cities in 2011, it hasn’t happened anywhere in the county, Phil McGrane, Ada County clerk, said Friday.

“There’s a lot of candidates in the race,” McGrane said by phone. “We’re definitely gearing up.”

Speculation in Boise was heightened when City Council President Lauren McLean, who has raised almost as much campaign money as incumbent Mayor David Bieter, mailed a flyer in October explaining how a runoff would work. Bieter and McLean lead the fundraising in a race that includes former Mayor Brent Coles and Ada County Highway District Commission President Rebecca Arnold.

Neither McLean nor Bieter has released any internal polling results, but some voters suspect the flyer indicates McLean sees a runoff as likely. The flyer showed seven unidentified candidates, one with 38% of the vote, one with 30% and the rest in the low teens or single digits.

Asked about that, McLean’s campaign manager, Melanie Folwell, said by phone, “We’re shooting for 50 plus one, and we’re going to keep doing that until 8 p.m. Tuesday. We’ll see what happens after that.” Robert West, Bieter’s campaign manager, said the mayor’s campaign was doing the same.

In Eagle, incumbent Mayor Stan Ridgeway faces a stiff challenge from Jason Pierce, a salesman for a business-security firm, in a three-way race. Pierce has raised nearly twice as much money as Ridgeway in a campaign marked by disagreements over growth and the future of the Eagle Water Co.

Any runoff would be held Tuesday, Dec. 3, the last Tuesday within the 30-day window that state law grants for runoff elections. County officials would have to pull off a new election in a fraction of the time they typically would, while voters will be asked to do something they’ve never done.

Most voters likely would return to their same polling places.

“We’re very committed to the legislative view of predictability for the voting public,” McGrane said. “The only exception would be because a facility isn’t available.”

A runoff was considered possible when Bieter ran for mayor in 2003. A Democratic state legislator, Bieter faced two Republicans, Chuck Winder and Vaughn Killeen, in a four-way race.

Council Republicans thought the heavily Democratic North End would carry Bieter to victory with a plurality, short of a majority. So the council that year changed city code to require a runoff if any leading candidate got less than 50% of the vote. Bieter got 52%.

The council changed city code again in 2006 to allow council candidates to win with a plurality but left the mayoral runoff in place.

Absentee ballots still will be available for those who want to vote by mail and will automatically go out to anyone who got one for the regular election. New voters could register at the polls.

McGrane said the timing will be odd, however — typically, absentee ballots go out 45 days before an election. When the county has only 30 days to hold one, he said, the time frame becomes dramatically compressed.

The county pays to hold regular elections, but the cost of runoffs falls on the city. For Boise taxpayers, a runoff election could cost as much as $100,000, McGrane said. Eagle’s cost would be lower, since the city’s population is much smaller.

McGrane said the worst scenario for his office would be if the runoff election leads to a recount. That, he said, would be “a nightmare.”

“The way you prepare for a recount is the antithesis of the way you prepare for a runoff,” McGrane said. “One is very open and you’re trying to bring everything out, while the other is very closed and you’re trying to put things away.”

Ada County officials are talking to officials in places with experience with holding runoff elections, McGrane said, including Bonneville County and places out of state.

Even if there is a runoff followed by a recount, Boiseans still would know who they elected by mid-December, McGrane said.

“The voters need to know we’re working on it,” McGrane said. “We’re going to be ready.”

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Hayley covers local government for the Idaho Statesman with a primary focus on Boise. Previously, she worked for the Salisbury Daily Times, the Hartford Courant, the Denver Post and McClatchy’s D.C. bureau. Hayley graduated from Ohio University with degrees in journalism and political science.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.