New Idaho Secretary of State Phil McGrane may have set a record for this year’s legislative session: Three bills clearing a committee (Senate State Affairs) for floor action, all at once, all on a hot subject - voting in elections - and all three sensible.
To be sure, two of them are mostly by way of cleanup. House Bill 11 (which has already passed the House) would simply ban private money from being used to run elections (a spot-on point, though I admit to some surprise this legislature signed on to it so easily). And Senate Bill 1048 exempts from election audits precincts that already are being reviewed because of close-election recounts.
More interesting is an idea (Senate Bill 1078) promoted occasionally over the years which never has taken root in Idaho: Authorizing voter guides featuring candidates.
The idea is not entirely new to Idaho, since the state has for decades provided information to voters about ballot issues, a good thing as far as it goes. More than 30 states make available similar information. Far fewer do the same for candidates.
The most elaborate and per-capita costly voter guide system in the nation may be Oregon’s. A study made in 2001 found eight states providing candidate information for voter guides, and Oregon spent the most on them ($4.2 million then). It provides separate guides for local area about candidates down to the smallest districts, plus issues and more, so that when the guide for a particular voter shows up in the mail (everyone registered gets one) it covers all the races from top of ballot to the smallest of districts in the area where the voter lives. (They could improve on cost by allowing voters to opt in to email versions, as eventually they probably will.) These candidates can - and most do - buy inexpensive space to describe themselves and their views. And there’s much more.
McGrane’s effort would be more modest. Its statement of purpose said his guides would include “information about candidates for federal and state offices, as well as other election information.” Whether legislative candidates would be included was not clearly noted; the indication seemed to take in just statewide and federal candidates. (California does it that way.)
That still would be a good start, though more is needed.
Idahoans get far too little information about candidates that isn’t either paid for by candidates or their advocates or opponents - and little opportunity to compare the candidates head to head, and often in the form of horribly misleading ads. (And never mind the eye-rolling stuff developed by groups like the Idaho Freedom Foundation.)
Back when Idaho had more newspapers and when they had much more space for news, far more extensive descriptions of the candidates were available to readers. Much of that has gone away.
Do you know who your legislators are? Do you know what they’re up to? Do you know how they’re voting and what they’re supporting and opposing? (I mean the specifics, not some garbage “freedom index.”) Do you know who influences them? Idahoans (and most other Americans) get little by way of civic education and little encouragement to check the many public resources that are available. Lots of candidate finance data must, by law, be filed with state or local agencies, and most of that is available online; outside of political activists, lobbyists and reporters, few people evidently look at it. At a time when most legislators can (reasonably) simply assume they’ll be re-elected if they want to be, the voters back home may have distressingly meager influence.
Many Idahoans appear to know little about most of the candidates they vote for in general elections aside from the party designation - mostly Republican or Democratic - next to their names. Making a choice on the basis of no more than that simply is bad citizenship.
Voter guides, easily produced and placed directly in voters’ hands, could be one step toward helping.
Will the Idaho Legislature go for a project that could result in voters knowing more about them and what they do?
Pay attention to this at least: What the Idaho Senate and House floors do with the new legislation.