Opinion

Voting in rural Idaho has social aspects that sweeten the overall experience

There is such a thing as voting turnout “sweeteners” up in Ashton, Idaho. Ann Oldham, a professional candy maker and chief judge at one of the Fremont County precints, offers a variety of chocolates to her voting clientel at the Senior Citizen Center in Ashton. Oldham says the precinct is small enough to have qualified for vote-by-mail, but residents told her they would miss the social aspect of seeing each other on election day — and some of her chocolate-covered caramels.
There is such a thing as voting turnout “sweeteners” up in Ashton, Idaho. Ann Oldham, a professional candy maker and chief judge at one of the Fremont County precints, offers a variety of chocolates to her voting clientel at the Senior Citizen Center in Ashton. Oldham says the precinct is small enough to have qualified for vote-by-mail, but residents told her they would miss the social aspect of seeing each other on election day — and some of her chocolate-covered caramels. Shellie Blanchard

It has been such a rough and tumble election season I had to do something to refresh my faith in all that is good in America.

So, I retreated to a memory of a story I did years ago about how people voted in Cherry County, Neb., a huge swath of parched sandhills in the northern part of the state kept alive by a few miraculous rivers. Ranchers manage to scratch out a living in the county, which is so big that parts of it are in both the Central and Mountain time zones.

During my visit I was surprised and delighted to learn that — because of the county’s remoteness and dearth of public meeting places — many folks gathered at private homes, ranches and garages to vote. They saw each other so infrequently because of the distance, climate and hardships that they reveled in election days. Pausing to cast ballots was a mixed celebration of pride, patriotism and potluck dishes meant to sweeten the ritual with social and culinary benefits.

In order to focus on something more than this sorry presidential race, I went searching for something like that in Idaho. If folks are still voting in Idaho ranches and homes, I couldn’t find them after picking the brains of clerks in places like Bear Lake, Butte, Cassia, Elmore, Fremont, Lewis, Owyhee and other counties. I learned federal rules don’t allow some of the private precinct locations anymore — and rightfully so, if not everybody can gain access. Plus, many areas are turning to vote-by-mail. In Idaho, precincts of 125 people or less have a choice: mail or continue to show up at designated locations that meet guidelines.

Given that choice, many still elect to gather — and not only to vote. Just as they did in Nebraska, Idahoans want to see each other, reconnect and extract some joy from the process. They know the code of neighborliness will outlive any divisive issue or candidate that tries to drive them apart.

“I’m so glad you’re writing about this,” said Angela Barkell, Owyhee County clerk. “Things have been so contentious in some places, patriotic voting has been desecrated.

“Here, it is very social. The community gets together and ladies and gentlemen spend the day, eat and visit. All the neighbors come in and you get to see everyone. They come in to Grand View and Bruneau and the ladies bring a potluck for the workers (they always share with voters).”

One of the oldest and time-honored precincts is located in the old Oreana Community Hall, which also makes for a fine dance venue.

Ann Oldham sees the same social voting culture across the state in Ashton, where she is the chief judge in one of the Fremont County precincts.

“Voting is very social. You run into the neighbors you never get a chance to talk to otherwise,” said Oldham, whose mother preceded her as chief election judge. Back then, there were still precincts in private homes.

Oldham said the big draw at her Ashton Senior Citizen Center precinct is that “people like to feel part of the American process.” But I’m thinking the homemade chocolates stuffed with caramel or divinity that she hands out are a factor, too. Oldman is a professional candy-maker, and everybody in town responds to her sugary enticements.

“It started with a lady who brought in homemade fudge,” Oldham said. “I kept it going. They come in and say, ‘Can I have a treat before I go?’ Some get one before and after.”

If you’re lucky enough to vote in Idaho County, you may run in to a bowl of chili at one of the fire district precincts, or perhaps at Harpster Community Hall.

But some Election Day rituals have faded into the past.

Tammy Frost, of Lewis County, reports that before Mohler Precinct was designated an “all mail precinct,” voters went to the home of Velta Reid. She often said that she would go out and announce to the cows in the field that the polls were open and closed. They always had potluck and goodies, and shared with voters.

Nobody can remember the name of the county or the homeowner, but one woman ran a tiny precinct in her residence. She prepared two pies before every election — all the slices were named for her regular voters.

As the end of the day approached, she would call people up who had not yet voted: “Hey, neighbor. Come on by and vote. There’s a piece of pie with your name on it.”

I feel better now. See you at the polls.

Robert Ehlert: 208-377-6437, @IDS_HelloIdaho

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