The regular election day of mid-May passed barely noticed across most of Idaho, as it often does. And low attention often means low turnouts.
And what do low turnouts mean for election results? What’s the difference, in other words, between that and higher turnout elections?
One particular result from May 16 deserves a close look for just this point. It is the ballot issue in Bonneville County over whether to create a community college taxing district, the prerequisite to creating a new community college at Idaho Falls. (There’s currently an Eastern Idaho Technical College, but it’s much more limited in scope; it will be supplanted by the new community college.)
The issue was hotly debated locally, though the debate was not really partisan. It did sharply split local Republicans. The Bonneville Republican committee took a stance against it, and threw in campaign money as well. But a Republican women’s organization argued in favor, and a number of local Republican officials, along with Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter, supported the measure.
The ballot issue passed with 71.4 percent of the vote; a two-thirds vote had been needed. The two-thirds mark often is a tough barrier to overcome. Are there any clues to tell us more specifically how it was done?
The college issue was prominent in the area, and it drew a significant voter turnout - significant, at least, by comparison with the norm. A year ago, in a presidential election year, the May election pulled only 19 percent of the electorate. This year (again, in Bonneville) it drew 28 percent; a significant increase.
The turnout was not uniform across all precincts. But some voting patterns did stick out.
Turnout was higher than 25 percent in eight precincts; in all but one of them, the college proposal won by more than two-thirds. Turnout was generally strong on the southern and western sides of Idaho Falls, and that is where the college proposal was strongest.
As you might expect with such a lopsided result, just a few precincts outright opposed the district - three out of 51 - and in two of those the turnout was well below average. (It was 22.9 percent and 20.9 percent in precincts 41 and 44, respectively.)
The Idaho Falls Post Register noted, “Of the 14 precincts with over 33.3 percent opposition to the creation of the community college, just one had a turnout over 25 percent – Precinct 54, generally speaking, the Ririe area.” That Ririe precinct opposed the district by a close vote, 86-80, and it’s worth recalling that this precinct in November voted 81.3 percent for Donald Trump. If you translated that percentage to the Ririe vote in May, it would have an anti-district vote of 134-32.
The top turnout precinct was 56 (at 45 percent), but that was an aberration since it was the mail-in “precinct”. (Take that as another argument in favor of mail-in voting.) Of the next four high-turnout regular precincts, three (the exception being Ririe) passed the district not just by the county-wide average of a little more than two to one, but by more than three to one.
As the Post Register added, “clearly just getting voters to the polls is what matters.”