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Present and accounted for

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There is no pleasing everyone at state legislatures this year, or rather, especially this year.

The question is, how best to accommodate the differences.

In Washington state, one news report said, “lawmakers plan to conduct most of their 105-day session remotely, holding hearings on legislation and even voting via web conferencing. But first, they need to convene in person so they can adopt new rules allowing that to happen.” Nor was that all they had to worry about, since on the days of the U.S. Capitol insurrection, “Armed protesters breached the gate of Washington’s Governor’s Mansion the same day, with some in the crowd urging protesters to return for the first day of the legislative session.”

Oregon was a little more peaceful, but only a little, after a state legislator was caught letting protesters into locked-down space in the state capital. This was not appreciated; there have been calls for his resignation or expulsion, for putting other lawmakers, and other people, at risk of illness or injury.

One (other) Republican lawmaker wrote to his constituents, “A great part of it will be virtual - meaning the Capitol building will remain closed to the public, while the legislature meets remotely and then in person from time to time to debate legislation. This is antithetical to the legislative process set up in the Oregon Constitution.” No one is happy about it, but the protesters have little to say about keeping people from getting sick and spreading illness.

And then there’s Idaho, where legislative leaders have taken a different approach, trying to hold the session under relatively normal processes. It won’t be that simple. Some lawmakers already have filed suit to allow them to work remotely because their health would be endangered - as clearly, it would be - if they tried to work in the crowded statehouse. So have some groups who argue their members would be put in danger because of the relatively open policy in place at the Statehouse.

Even so, there’s some expectation that we’ll see more protest at the Statehouse, as the Idaho State Police statement on Statehouse etiquette seems to suggest: “During these extraordinary times, the letter is a reminder for those wishing to participate in the legislative process that rules of decorum at the State Capitol are intended to maintain public order and ensure a balance between public participation and public health and safety.” The ISP probably wouldn’t have issued such a statement if it wasn’t thought to be necessary; which it likely is.

There’s good reason for frustration. Legislative sessions, like other government meetings, can be made to work at a functional level through online technology and at a distance, but few people would call it ideal. In-person activities are something we should be aiming to get back to.

But for right now, that would be dangerous.

This shouldn’t be so hard a circle to square. You could start by putting an emphasis on the timeline.

We’ve all been living in a Covid-19 world for so long it’s easy to fall into a pattern of thinking that the way things are now, are the way they will be permanently. But that’s not the case. As I write this the pandemic continues to rage, but the probability is that its force will start to decline as vaccines become more widely available and as an already warm winter opens out into spring. Safety procedures that do make sense now can be scaled back.

We may see some changes in the way we do things that go on for a long time, but much of what we’ve had to put up with - the masking, the building closures and much more - probably will be much less widespread. We accept temporary limitations in access when buildings are under construction or repair; this could be regarded as something similar.

By the end of the Idaho and Washington legislative sessions, in fact, there may be some opportunity to open things up; that probably will be the case in Oregon, where the legislative session will run to mid-summer.

This isn’t forever. It’s for long enough to avoid making more people sick.
 

Insurrection near and far

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Flung out at cross-currents, the word “coup” often has been abused in recent years, as the fact-checking site Politifact concluded of many of its uses, by left and right.

But, after Wednesday’s invasion of the United States capitol, it said this: “A good case can be made that the storming of the Capitol qualifies as a coup. It’s especially so because the rioters entered at precisely the moment when the incumbent’s loss was to be formally sealed, and they succeeded in stopping the count. The storming of the Capitol also would seem to qualify as sedition, which is the use of ‘force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States’ or the authority of the U.S. government.”

Much of what we’ve seen in recent years by way of protest activity has been legitimate political speech within our system. Violence has happened but it’s been uncommon, and people mostly have used the events to speak out for or against something - the kind of opinion speech the first amendment most specifically is there to protect.

The Wednesday storming, break-in and vandalizing of the Capitol prompted by a president desperate to cling to his office, was something else. It was an attack on our government, but not only that: It is an attack on the United States, and on us. Work being done on our behalf - choosing our next president - was stopped, and the leaders of our country were forced on the run and into hiding.

Many of these thugs like to call themselves “patriots,” but that’s the sickest of jokes. They are not defending our nation: They are attacking it and us.

Keep that in mind as attention in Idaho turns, as it does every year about this time, to the Idaho Statehouse, and the arrival of the 2021 legislature.

If many Idahoans watching with unease-to-horror the Wednesday break-in at the nation’s house felt a twinge of recognition, that may be because not long ago - to be exact, on August 24 of last year - a smaller but in many respects similar group likewise smashed through doors and windows and defied law enforcement security, attempting to intimidate our elected officials, during a special legislative session at the Idaho Statehouse. The photo images looked similar.

As in Washington, the domestic terrorists wound up being treated with relative kid gloves, with few arrests and little official pushback. Why, we can only guess, without the ability to read minds; but none of the explanations are good.

Based on the exhibited behavior so far by the insurrectionists, we can conclude a few things.

In Boise, the riot wasn’t about the presidential election (its overt subject was the state’s pandemic requirements), but the crowd was strikingly similar: Look at pictures of the mobs at Boise and at Washington and you’d not easily tell the difference. The overlap with MAGA and conspiracy theory and militia and Q-Anon enthusiasm was obvious in both places.

And something else: A complete lack of regard, really a shocking contempt, for their fellow citizens. Both mob actions were fueled by a mix of full fury and recreational fun; it was an emotional carnival for the rioters. (Look closely at the pictures of the mob leaders in both places.) At our expense, they got a high they’re not going to want to abandon now.

The Idaho State Police, which takes the lead in protecting the Idaho Statehouse, is not ignorant of any of this. The agency several days ago released a statement setting out reasonable standards (under the circumstances) for access and proper behavior around the Idaho Statehouse.

But their planning will have to go (maybe it already has, internally) much further than the public statement suggests. Likely during this session, and possibly on repeated occasions, defenders of the Statehouse - and the state - may be confronted with a mob hopped up on high emotion, a complete inability to act rationally, a disregard of rules major and minor and a willingness to become violent. They cannot be reasoned with. They are dangerous to peaceful Idahoans: Some of last summer’s Statehouse invaders packed high-powered firearms. Under these conditions, with a mob like that, people can be hurt or killed, as some were in Washington.

The hopeful view, in the days after the U.S. Capital insurrection, was that it may have let some of the hot air out of the balloon. We can hope that will be the case. But we’d better not count on it.
 

Reflections in a wayward year

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The turn of a year must have some unearthly power, because I can't imagine what else would have managed to prompt me to look back over the last year's columns. It wasn't cheerful reading.

But some reminders from the last 122 months may be useful anyway as we prepare for another set of 12 months we hope will constitute an improvement.

January 10: In his state of the state, Governor Brad Little said "We must also acknowledge that our communities are put at risk when we simply warehouse those who break the law. Our safety is maintained when those returning home from a period of incarceration can become productive citizens. Two-thirds of Idaho inmates are in prison because of probation and parole violations – more than any other state in the country. Idaho taxpayers pay $110 million per year to incarcerate this population. This is a taxpayer issue as well as a public safety issue.” It was and even more so still is in the wake of Covid-19. But nothing much has come of it.

January 31: I wrote that "Idaho is a serious renewable power state, probably among the leading clean-energy production states anywhere in the country." That has become gradually more true through the year (Idaho Power's push to depress payments for renewable by ratepayers notwithstanding). Just last week I just had the chance to reinforce the point to someone from across the country who was writing about Idaho, but I also added in doing so, "Just don't wag it in the face of Idaho's political majority."

February 21: I wrote this week about the obviously futile proposal for extending the western boundary of Idaho across eastern and southwestern Oregon and including pieces of northern California. The enthusiasm for this sort of thing comes and goes, but what's been interesting with this is the way the headlines, and enthusiasm, seems to have persisted. Not least, it might be added, among a lot of northwest Oregonians who wouldn't mind detaching from their east.

March 20: During this last year I wrote many more columns on the subject of - surprise! - Covid-19 than on anything else. How could it have been otherwise? My first column squarely on the pandemic noted among other things that the legislature was still meeting and not in a hurry to wrap up. I added, "Governor Brad Little, who has been describing the illness in serious terms and urging appropriate steps to avoid Covid-19, at this writing hasn’t been willing to take mandatory state actions to close schools or shut down places like bars or restaurants. But that also described places like Oregon up until only a few days ago." The warning signs were abundant even then.

Two weeks later (April 3), after reciting the pandemic spread numbers in Idaho: "Yeah, this really does look like an emergency." Still does.

May 15: Another Covid column I thought made the point about the need for serious enforcement action: "Only takes one." It recounted the story of pandemic spread at Weiser, from a family event through a food processing center. The idea that such innocent activities could have such disastrous consequences is counterintuitive and hard for a lot of people to grasp. But grasp it they must; sadly, I could have written repeated versions of that same column in the months since.

July 10: The state political conventions over, I wrote about the prospects for Republicans after the November election: "indicators now show a probable [national] loss for Trump, with a good chance it won’t be close. If that happens, the national Republican Party – which like the Idaho chapter has thrown in almost fully with the president – will have some serious rethinking to do. Where will it go? Will it try to recreate a Trumpism without Trump?" These questions remain in force, and some of the first indicators of where we're headed may turn up in the imminent state legislative session. But to date, there hasn't been much need to revisit this since.

December 11: "It doesn’t happen especially often, but now and again you do see it: An actual, clear-cut, indisputable profile in courage. Today’s rare example: Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden." Watch the Idaho Legislature to see where other profiles in courage are (the opportunities for such a demonstration may be plentiful) - if any.

Happy new year, and good luck.
 

An inflection year?

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When the Washington Post asked readers for a single adjective to describe the year 2020, words like “exhausting,” “surreal,” “chaotic,” “relentless” and “nightmare” turned out to be popular.

But will it mark an inflection point for our nation - and, for local purposes, for Idaho?

It may teach us some lessons, which may be useful or not.

2020 did not mark an obvious political turning point, in a larger, voter-driven sense. Idaho voted much as it has for nearly three decades running, and while the national vote changed in some places, the presidential numbers marked something closer to incremental change than anything sweeping (even if the change from a Trump to a Biden presidency will be dramatic enough).

But 2020 was a year of Covid, and in many places - including some around Idaho - that of Black Lives Matter (which gave many of us in the west a new meaning for the BLM acronym), and some changes could come out of that.

Some people may draw conclusions that almost come out of the late 60s, that the thing to do is riot in the streets, engage in violence, threaten public officials and anyone else who disagrees with them. Did 2020 open the door to that kind of behavior, or did it offer ample enough demonstration that acting like violent children isn’t a path toward improvement?

There are other possible lessons, and those - involving both Covid-19 and BLM - relate to how we treat each other, whether we listen to and expect honesty from each other, and whether we act like civilized people … or like feral pure individualists who wander into town after having grown up the way Tarzan did.

If 2020 were a long-form television series, you might draw a moral from it along these lines: We really do have some responsibility toward each other, and a primary focus on satisfaction of grudges is no way to get along or to try to govern ourselves.

That brought to mind a quote from earlier this year, when former legislator Luke Malek (who said he plans to run for lieutenant governor in 2022), said he wants to “work together to solve problems rather than divide people.”

Such a quote only a few years ago would have seemed so anodyne as not even meriting mention; wouldn’t everyone think that? But in 2020, that Malek quote, coming in a time when anger, suspicion and division have become overt political strategy in some places, almost seems like a daring reach.

As we arrive at 2021, we have had a year in which division - physical division, social distancing - has become a common fact of life, and something nearly all of us want to change and at least greatly reduce in the year ahead. As we do that, as we see each other face to face a little more once again, might that mean we reconsider some of our divisions? Might we be a little more willing to listen, a little less determined to find dark motives, conspiracies and even evil in people who are simply different from us?

We are already, of course, in a new campaign cycle, albeit in its early stages. But with a legislature set to arrive (in some fashion) shortly, and political campaigns likely to take form not long after, we can begin to ask now whether the troubles of 2020 might actually help us rethink some of our baser approaches to many things, politics among them.

And right now, in this unusual holiday season, seems as good a time as any to start turning that corner. Might the spirit of this season carry on in the months ahead? We can hope.
 

Start dates

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Idaho Governor Brad Little, while pointing out the rapidly increasing cases of Covid-19 in Idaho, has suggested considering putting off (or reformatting to virtual) a potential multi-day - in fact, multi-month - potential superspreader event: The 2021 session of the Idaho Legislature.

The risks of spreading are real, and the governor wasn’t exaggerating when he called a crowded Statehouse a “pretty good petri dish for transmissible moments of COVID.”

The idea appears not to be gaining sufficient traction in the Idaho Legislature, however. Doing something like that would take near-universal buy-in, with rule changes and much more needed to make it happen. The Democratic caucuses suggested holding off the session until April or until vaccines are widely available. But Republicans seem unlikely to go there, and not just because of the GOP base attitude toward the pandemic. And making the change, especially so close to the planned start date, would in fact be a complex undertaking; a lot of frantic changes would have to be made.

Still. Before dismissing the idea entirely, there are thoughts worth considering.

One is that there’s nothing particularly sacred about the January 11 start date.

The legislature can change its start date if it wishes, according to Article III, Section 8 of the Idaho Constitution. You’d need to call a special session, though, to make that happen, since the start date is set in Idaho law (in a section scheduling it, ungainly, “at the hour of twelve o’clock P.M. on the Monday on or nearest the ninth day in January.” But it could be done.

Most legislative sessions around the country do begin their regular sessions in the first half of January in odd-numbered years; some hold short or no sessions in even-numbered years. But there are variations. California and Maine start their sessions in the December before - that’s as if the Idaho Legislature’s early December organizational session simply never adjourned and kept on going, with longish breaks for the holidays.

Oklahoma, Nevada, Alabama and West Virginia all regularly start their sessions in February. Florida starts in March, and Louisiana in April. But those aren’t the only variations. In Oregon, for example, the legislature is scheduled to start in 2021 the same day as in Idaho, but in most recent years it has launched its sessions in February. (It uses some of January to hold interim, planning and appointment meetings.)

But none of these dates are absolute requirements. These wintry schedules historically have related to the preferences of farmers who for generations made up disproportionate numbers of legislators in many states, including Idaho. The Gem State still has plenty of farmer lawmakers, but not as many of the total group as historically was the case. The farmer legislators who needed to get back to their fields for planting time are fewer and tend to be less constrained now than they once were.

Time was, as well, when no one wanted to be stuck at the Statehouse in the heat of summer, but these days we have an invention called air conditioning that keeps most of these places cool.

So why is the legislative session these days really held when it is?

Probably because of inertia, as much as anything else.

So there’s a case to be made:

If Covid-19 vaccines are widely distributed through the first quarter of next year, then a regular legislative session next spring might be more safely and easily held than one starting in January.

There are reasonable counterarguments, such as the disruption of planning of thousands of people.

But it merits some consideration.
 

An actual profile in courage

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It doesn’t happen especially often, but now and again you do see it: An actual, clear-cut, indisputable profile in courage.

Today’s rare example: Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.

This arises from one of the misbegotten legal actions of recent years, coming out of - surprise - Texas, which is suing in federal court to interfere in how several other states conduct their elections. It is a completely unprecedented kind of interference - states historically always have left each other alone in the conduct of their elections, and even the federal government generally has stayed at a remove. But Texas is suing four states that voted for Democrat Joe Biden for president seeking to throw out millions of votes because it didn’t support the candidate Texas officials supported.

Do not be fooled by any - any - of the arguments about flawed election processes in those sued states (or any others, for that matter). Those states and their elected officials have been challenged in court over and over, dozens of times, in the last month, and no evidence of any substantial problems has been developed, with the result that nearly every legal challenge has been aggressively thrown from the courts - often by judges appointed by Republicans, including Donald Trump. If someone has evidence of significant electoral wrongdoing, they should bring it forward. So far, the most strenuous efforts of Trump supporters have come up dry. This was a clean election. These vague, unsubstantiated claims of fraud are the fraud.

Why do you hear of election fraud in rallies and press conferences but, from shame-faced lawyers, none in court? Because lying to judges in court can have serious professional repercussions.

Nevertheless, Texas has been assembling support from Republican officials in other states. At this writing 17 Republican states’ attorneys general have signed on. It’s become a national conservative litmus test.

Wasden said he wouldn’t join. Here’s the substance of why:

“As I have done since the day I took my oath of office – in which I pledged to uphold and protect both the Idaho and U.S. constitutions – I strive to protect the State of Idaho’s legal interests. As is sometimes the case, the legally correct decision may not be the politically convenient decision. But my responsibility is to the State of Idaho and the rule of law.
“This decision is necessary to protect Idaho’s sovereignty. As Attorney General, I have significant concerns about supporting a legal argument that could result in other states litigating against legal decisions made by Idaho’s legislature and governor. Idaho is a sovereign state and should be free to govern itself without interference from any other state. Likewise, Idaho should respect the sovereignty of its sister states.”
Actually, this is a sound conservative stance. He makes a fair states-rights point: If Idaho can sue Wisconsin and Georgia to try to get them to overturn the will of their voters, then why shouldn’t California and Oregon be able to sue Idaho to overturn its results? Open the door, and you never know who may walk through. (The Wisconsin rebuttal brief makes a similar point.)

That, of course, is in addition to the simple glaring dishonesty of the Texas project.

Wasden’s reference to political convenience also is on target. He will be taking no end of heat, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a flash mob of armed protesters show up at his house, since this seems to be the expanding modus operandi in Idaho on the right. Odds are his office has been fielding physical threats by the time you read this. (Idaho’s legislative leadership also called on him to join with Texas.)

Compare that to the craven response by Governor Brad Little who, following up on Wasden, said he would have an attorney file a brief supporting Texas. His statement as to why: "Idaho's elections are safe and secure, and we expect the same of other states. Protecting the sanctity of the voting process is paramount to ensuring a strong democratic process, and our citizens need the confidence that their vote counts.” (Notice the absence of actual specifics in other states.)

He does not say how spreading fake rumors and distrust in the elections held by other states, which is what the Texas suit does and is designed to do, will help give our citizens “confidence that their vote counts.”

There’s a reason profiles in courage are rare: It’s hard to stand up to the crowd. Wasden is not a newcomer to that role; he’s taken gutsy stands before. This may be his gutsiest.
 

Edging still further

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News reports say former state Representative Luke Malek has started work toward running for lieutenant governor in 2022, and that he wants to “work together to solve problems rather than divide people.”

Three thoughts come immediately to mind. First, this sounds like an excellent and needed sentiment, Second, if he’s going to pursue this, he’s wise to get an early start, because what he’s trying to accomplish won’t be easy. The third is that, based on what sounds like a philosophical organizing principle, he may have mistaken coming election cycle for that of something like, say, 1972.

He’s in the right party to win; a working majority of Idaho voters have written off listening to or considering Democrats before they even know who’s running. But as to what it takes to win a Republican Party in today’s atmosphere, well, solutions don’t seem to be of much interest, and neither does unity.

Malek would, moreover, be stepping into the middle of the political hurricane in which that whole dynamic may be put to the test.

There’ve been no formal announcements, but many Idaho political people at this point would be surprised if Idaho’s current lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin, doesn’t run for governor, presumably against incumbent Brad Little, who’s widely expected to seek a second term.

The two have been at odds, a lot, sometimes even going without speaking for extended periods, and this has not been (at least not primarily) personal: They come from different wings of the Idaho Republican Party. You could fairly consider Little as establishment and business-oriented with a political view probably not drastically different from a Phil Batt or a Dirk Kempthorne. McGeachin is part of the activist, rabble-rousing crowd more like a Sarah Palin or a member of the U.S. House Freedom Caucus, appealing to Donald Trump superfans, more interested in raising hell than in crafting policy.

If they go head to head next year (opening the lieutenant governor spot on the ballot, to circle back to Malek), what happens?

We’re still a year and a half from that primary election, but the trajectory right now is clear. As the writer Chuck Malloy said in a recent column, “Can she win? Absolutely.”

Malloy cites a collection of - well, we’ll call them activists - ranging from the anti-maskers to the militia types and well beyond, who would fall naturally into a McGeachin base. Little has a base too, mainly of mainstream Republicans. But let’s look at the numbers.

In this year’s election Trump, who lost nationally and decisively (you can forget about debating that point), won Idaho with 63.9 percent of the vote, compared to 59.2% in 2016, and with a much larger turnout; the numbers indicate he is more popular in Idaho now than he was four years ago. Anyone running in Idaho not as a Trump acolyte has a serious numbers problem.

That’s of a piece. Two years ago, in a seven-way Republican primary, Russ Fulcher won the Republican nomination in the first congressional district with 43.1% - nearly three times the second-place finisher - running as the leading candidate of the Trump-activist side of the party. (Malek came in third, with 14.3 percent.) That same election, the similarly-positioned McGeachin, running in a five-way for the Republican lieutenant governor nomination, won with 28.9 percent, which was nearly twice her nearest competitor.

True, Little - on that same day - won his primary with 37.3 percent. He had two main competitors, both seeking to pick up votes from the same segment of the party Fulcher and McGeachin were appealing to; in effect, they split the vote of that segment. Had either of those candidates not been in the race, Little probably would not have won.

That dynamic was less true in past election years; in 2014, for example, C.L. “Butch” Otter of the mainstream wing, running for re-election as governor, defeated Fulcher in what was meaningfully a two-way, though not overwhelmingly. But conditions seem to have changed since then.

Idaho politics has been remarkably stable for many years. In 2022, it may take a shift - not of party, but of world view. And candidates like Malek, and maybe Little, may be challenged navigating it.
 

Elections foul and fair

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Perry Swisher, the long-time Idaho politician and analyst (and much else), long ago told me three stories about the dark underside he’d once seen in Idaho politics.

One had to do with what was for generations one of the state’s most hard-core Democratic counties, Shoshone in Idaho’s northern mining country. “When [conservative Republican] Henry Dworshak first ran for the Senate [in 1954], he carried Shoshone County,” he said. “Shoshone was available. It required striking a deal with the mine owners and the old mine and smelters coalition. The mine metals and smelters' workers union had some of the most sophisticated political leadership in the state ... It was absolutely cold-blooded.”

Swisher’s own first race for the legislature in Bannock County a few years earlier, in 1946, had … peculiarities. “We had a precinct, Alameda No. 3, that had over a thousand votes in it in the 1944 election, in spite of the law that said that you divide precincts [that large]. So Kenny [Roebuck, Swisher's political mentor], warned me to get that precinct divided up, and he said if you don't - but I was younger and I had more important things to do, and I didn't get that precinct split. On election night I was 100-and-some votes ahead. And then …” He lost by 23.

Swisher said, “Of course, I wanted to sue and I wanted to jump up and down. But [Roebuck] said, ‘No, you're a Republican running in a Democratic county, and I told you what to do and you didn't listen. And you lost. Could have won. But if you turn into a crybaby your first trip out, there won't be much you can do. So just shut up’." And Swisher did, and later would go on to win.

Then there was the case of the 1956 Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate between Frank Church (who went on to win the seat) and former Senator Glen Taylor, about which Swisher also had his suspicions. The candidates were within a couple of hundred votes of each other, and Taylor was highly dubious of the vote in Elmore County, where he long had done well, and especially Precinct 3, where the numbers seemed off. He railed about what he was sure was fraud, but was never able to nail down the details, and Church was declared the winner.

John Corlett, a long-time Idaho political reporter who followed the case at the time and considered it for years, recalled, “I just couldn't see how it deliberately could have been done. The whole scheme of a statewide primary, how this one little precinct could have been the one that told the whole story - I couldn't see it. But you couldn't convince Taylor.”

That Church-Taylor incident is the most recent seriously contested - in terms of possible election-stealing - I’ve heard of in Idaho. Have elections been stolen, in Idaho or elsewhere in the country? Yes. (The best book I know of about such a case: Means of Ascent, the brilliant Robert Caro account of how Lyndon Johnson stole barely enough votes to prevail in a 1948 Texas Senate election. You’ll be up with it till late at night.)

But not much in recent years, hardly at all in fact, in Idaho or elsewhere, for several reasons.

One is that elections staffs have gotten more professional and better overseen and more transparent. Idaho, for example, has had a string of secretaries of state, going back more than half a century, who have managed the process with care and fairness, and much the same seems true as well in most other states (I know that to be the case around the Pacific Northwest). County elections offices have gotten better with time as well.

Another reason is that the kind of mass vote grabs like the one Swisher described in long-ago Shoshone County (and that Johnson relied on in Texas) were open secrets; the corruption in certain places was so well known they came as no surprise, and were widely accepted as facts of life. They were too big, too overt, to be kept secret. You won’t realistically find many counterparts in the United States today.

A third issue is that, for most attempts at election-stealing to work, the vote has to be really close, so that it comes down to a single community - or better, a single precinct. (In the case of Johnson’s 1948 statewide Texas race, the battle wound up centering on a single ballot box in Precinct 13 in tiny Jim Wells County.) Get past more than a few hundred votes, and there’s almost no way to make it work: The attempt at a theft becomes too massively complicated, involving too many people, too many places where a conspiracy could fall apart.

And there’s this more general point: Conspiracies are uncommon. Successful conspiracies are rare. Massive successful conspiracies are scarce to the point of being nearly nonexistent.

Bear these factors in mind when you read about the count, and the hollering about it, in the current presidential election.
 

Under the state stats

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Nearby states almost always go out of their way to maintain cordial relations; sharp criticism is unusual. So the words hit when, at a press briefing, Washington Governor Jay Inslee had this to say:

“I have urged the Idaho leaders to show some leadership. One of the reasons we have such jammed up hospitals in Spokane is because Idaho, frankly, has not done some of the things we’ve found successful.”

This blast had factual basis. You can see some of the core of it in three numbers.

At this writing, in an ordered list of Covid-19 cases per capita, Washington ranks (among the 50 states plus District of Columbia) 46th, and Oregon ranks 47th. Compared to almost all of the rest of the country, they’re doing well, albeit they’re also seeing cases rise and feeling medical system stress.

Idaho ranks 7th highest in cases per capita, behind only the Dakotas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Utah. These differences between Idaho and its western neighbors are not minor. Idaho has reported more than 25,000 more cases than Oregon, which has almost two and a half times Idaho’s population.

If you’re sitting west of the Idaho line, you’re looking east and seeing a landscape of contagion.

It’s not theoretical. Inslee’s outburst was prompted by those “jammed up hospitals in Spokane” which have gotten jammed up because of traffic inbound from Kootenai County, where medical facilities have become crowded because of Covid-19 growth. (At this writing, Kootenai is just about to hit 6,000 cases all by itself, and the rest of the Panhandle is keeping pace.)

As for Oregon, care to guess where the highest per-capita case rate among its 36 counties would be? That’s right: Malheur County (the Ontario area), the main Idaho entryway into Oregon and the only one with substantial communities on both sides of the border. And it’s not higher than the rest of Oregon by just a little. The Malheur rate is 6,830 per 100,000 people, half-again the rate of the next highest-rate counties, which also are in eastern Oregon. The rate in Multnomah County (Portland) is 1,598 per 100,000 population, less than a quarter that in Malheur, and even Multnomah’s rate is higher than it is in most of western Oregon.

None of this has gone unnoticed in the Pacific corridor. The Oregon state Covid website reports, “To fight the rapid spread of COVID-19, Oregon Governor Kate Brown, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, and California Governor Gavin Newsom issued travel advisories urging visitors entering their states or returning home from travel outside these states to self-quarantine. The travel advisories urge against non-essential out-of-state travel, ask people to self-quarantine for 14 days after arriving from another state or country, and encourage residents to stay local.”

In other words, people from east of their states have become high-risk.

Instead of simply feeling irked by someone pointing out these simple facts, Idahoans might usefully ask themselves why their state is seeing such higher disease numbers.

No doubt Idaho Governor Brad Little has been thinking about this quite a lot, and has acknowledged, “We've come to the profound conclusion that what we've been doing hasn't been working." At the risk of engaging in mind-reading, I suspect his inclination would be to do more - as rapidly-growing numbers of his fellow Republican governors have been or have started doing - but he feels constrained by the massive and fierce resistance from within his own state’s party.

Wyoming’s governor, Mark Gordon, sadly commented, “We've relied on people to be responsible, and they're being irresponsible.” Little might not want to say that, and he could point out accurately the many Idahoans who have been (sometimes fielding heat from other people) taking the right steps to combat the pandemic; but he probably could find some accord with his Wyoming counterpart.

Inslee’s criticism was incomplete: What’s happening in Idaho has not only to do with leadership, but also in many places followership - and citizenship, and a willingness to look out for each other. That’s a deeper problem.