A year ago, when outgoing Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa sat down for an interview with the Statesman Editorial Board, we talked at length about how to improve voter turnout in Idaho. The subject came up because the November 2014 election turnout of eligible voters in Idaho — around 35 percent — was one of the worst showings in decades.
Ysursa, who has since joined our board, summed it up in one word: competition. The more people who get involved and select candidates, the more competition there will be. The more competition, the higher the likelihood that turnout will increase.
So here it is, January 2016, and we’re wondering when the competition for Idaho’s congressional seats is going to surface. None of the three Republican members up for re-election has an announced opponent from either of the major parties. Reps. Raul Labrador and Mike Simpson and Sen. Mike Crapo are unopposed. (Jim Risch does not face re-election until 2020).
By this time in 2014, we knew Simpson was going to face opposition in the May GOP primary. In fact, we had known for much of the previous year. We knew Labrador would have an opponent in the November 2014 general election. And we learned in the first week that year that Risch was going to face someone in the general election.
Technically, Labrador has yet to announce. We can understand why he might be taking his time. What’s the rush when you have no opposition? Simpson? Nada. Crapo has a $4 million re-election war chest. He might not have to spend a cent.
However daunting the challenge to run against an incumbent, Idaho needs competition. We need a race and a process where each of these men has to go before the people and explain why we should send them back to Washington.
When contrasting ideas surface and are debated, the electorate becomes more educated and interested. When the people are paying attention, they go to the polls and vote. When the election doesn’t matter, people conclude that, well, being informed and involved doesn’t matter.
But the burden of competition is not assigned to the incumbents. It is the job of competing wings within a party or the other party to come up with challengers. Time is running short for this to happen.
Bert Marley, chairman of the Idaho Democratic Party, assured us last week that Labrador, Simpson and Crapo will have Democratic opposition — though he wouldn’t disclose names. But he also said most of his focus this election year is on recruiting for legislative races.
Yes, he said, it is hard for someone to think about running against Republican incumbents in federal races in this state. “You’d have to be a pretty big optimist to say we’re gonna beat Crapo, Labrador, Simpson,” he said. That’s why Democrats are more focused on potential gains in Idaho legislative races.
Granted, this is a presidential election year. The Democratic and Republican contenders have stirred up a lot of attention. In March in Idaho there will be a presidential primary (GOP) and a caucus (Democrats). The remaining candidates stand for election in the primary in May and the general election in November. Turnout is always higher in presidential election years. It better be.
Idahoans deserve a choice when they go to the polls. And voter turnout is not going to improve unless candidates give voters a real choice.
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