Idaho legislators missed an opportunity during last week’s special session to make it easier to vote during the coronavirus pandemic. Voting in the November election likely will be more difficult for those who want to vote in person on Nov. 3. 

Because of the pandemic, county clerks across the state are concerned about finding enough polling places and poll workers to provide a full complement of polling locations. More than likely, county clerks will reduce the number of polling places and consolidate multiple precincts within one polling location.

Clerks already are ruling out places like senior centers and assisted living facilities as polling places. Schools, if in session on Nov. 3, would not be a good idea during a pandemic.

In addition, in Ada County, only 50 percent of the county’s regular poll workers decided to work the polls for the Aug. 25 election, according to Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane.

So if counties decide to reduce the number of polling places, that means your polling place might be a little farther from your house and there might be more voters from other precincts trying to vote in one place.

Legislators could have helped relieve that scenario and made it much easier for everyone to vote in person through legislation allowing “vote centers.”

Vote centers allow any voter from any precinct to cast their vote in person at any vote center within their county.

For example, if you live in Kuna but work in downtown Boise, you could swing by a vote center set up at the Ada County Courthouse during your lunch hour and cast your ballot.

Instead, you’ll still have to go to your polling place in Kuna when it opens at 8 a.m. before going in to work or hope you get back to Kuna after work before 8 p.m. before the polls close. It’s not just an Ada County issue. Think about people who might work in McCall but live in Cascade or Donnelly. Same for Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue.

McGrane said that most people who vote in person vote after 5 p.m., and the problems with long lines and shortage of ballots tend to happen during those last three hours.

So you already have a majority of in-person voters trying to squeeze in their vote in the last three hours of polls being open. Now, with likely fewer polling places, it could become even more of a challenge this November.

It’s worth noting that every single sitting county clerk in Idaho signed off on a request for vote centers.

The Idaho Senate passed the “vote center” legislation pretty handily, 31-4, during the special session.

The bill hit a roadblock in the House, though, failing to make it out of the House State Affairs Committee.

Concerns raised during that hearing included where vote centers would be located, how those locations are communicated with voters and concerns that counties would limit vote centers to just one center in a county.

Unfortunately, it was clear that some legislators didn’t really understand the bill, didn’t understand how polling places currently work and had unfounded suspicions about the motives behind the legislation.

Some of the legislators opposing the bill also didn’t seem to fully understand that county clerks already can—and likely will—change polling locations in November. The bill as proposed would have just made it more convenient for voters.

These vote centers ideally would have been in larger venues, such as ExtraMile Arena or the Ford Idaho Center, to promote social distancing and still accommodate large numbers of voters.

Vote centers are a good idea, and the idea should be brought back in the regular session. I know I would like greater flexibility in where I can cast my vote on Election Day. Wouldn’t you like to be able to go into any vote center within your county, no matter where you are, and cast your vote?

The Idaho Statesman published this editorial on Sept. 2.

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