The aftermath of the city election in Caldwell, which seems to have thrown a shock into some of the people there, raises a significant question or two.
These emerge from the contest for Caldwell City Council Seat 6, where John McGee took the largest number of votes (39.2 percent) over two other candidates, Evangeline Beechler (30.6 percent) and Charles Stadick (30.2 percent). It was a close election. In the other two council races there, one candidate won unopposed and other prevailed with more than half of the vote.
The initial election night take was that McGee seemed to have won the election, since (apparently) Caldwell did not have a provision saying that council members needed to have a majority of the vote to win. Idaho state law (50-707B) says, “A city may, by ordinance, provide that a majority of the votes for any candidate running for a council seat adopted by a city in accordance with section 50-707 or 50-707A, Idaho Code, shall be required for election to that office. In the event no candidate receives a majority of the votes cast, there shall be a runoff election between the two (2) candidates receiving the highest number of votes cast.”
If such an ordinance is on the books, you need an outright majority to win. If not, a plurality is enough. Generally, Idaho cities do not require full majorities to win, though some do (Boise in the case of mayor, for example, as many Idahoans now know).
So far as I can tell - if anyone has better information, please correct me - there is no majority-vote requirement on the ordinance books in Caldwell. If that’s true, where is the legal authority, on the part of Caldwell city or Canyon County, for a runoff election? Or is the runoff happening just because some people in Caldwell didn’t like the idea of McGee - who awhile back left the state Senate under a cloud - on the city council? Other council candidates have won office in Caldwell in recent years, including in the elections of 2017, with less than a majority.
Because McGee acceded to the proposal for a runoff election against his nearest opponent, Beechler, the runoff seems likely to go ahead; on Thursday, the Canyon County elections office scheduled it for December 3. But suppose someone challenged it in future as being unauthorized by local law?
When McGee asked Boise attorney David Leroy to look into the question, matters took a deeper turn.
Leroy checked the provision covering council elections generally in the Caldwell code, and found the ordinance passed in 1989 that says, “Members of the Caldwell city council shall be elected by a majority of the qualified electors as established by the Idaho Code.” He then noted that the Idaho Code (the state law) defines “qualified electors” as “registered voters.”
You need only pause for a moment to see the significance of that. In any given election, only a portion of all registered voters cast ballots; that percentage is what is meant by “voter turnout,” which in the case of off-year city elections in Idaho almost always falls far short of half.
That probably means a lot of Caldwell elected officials never were, according to city code, properly elected at all.
When I talked to Leroy about this, he also raised another question: If this language was inserted in Caldwell city code, might it lie in wait in the codes of any number of other Idaho cities?
The good news, going forward, is that the fix would be easy: a council could replace “qualified electors” with something like “ballots cast.” And an argument might be made that since no one objected to the election of those past city officials, the problem might be considered moot.
But language like this in legal codes can be time bombs, and they can explode at the most inopportune moments.