Rep. Brent Crane killed bill to ease ballot-opening timelines for county clerks | Regional News

Rep. Brent Crane killed bill to ease ballot-opening timelines for county clerks | Regional News

BOISE — The legislation that allowed Idaho to be among the most prompt states reporting its election results in the November election expired Dec. 31, and despite passing the Senate unanimously on Feb. 18, a proposal to make the change permanent died without a hearing in the House this year.

Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, who chairs the House State Affairs Committee, said he decided not to hold a hearing on the bill in the panel he chairs during this year’s legislative session, allowing the bill, SB 1070, to die instead.

“Ultimately, I made the decision not to,” Crane told the Idaho Press on Monday.

The bill adjusted some deadlines for county clerks to send out absentee ballots to voters amid a huge surge in absentee ballots, and most importantly, allowed them to open and scan absentee ballots that they received — but not count them — starting seven days before the election. Otherwise, the ballots couldn’t have been opened until Election Day.

Ada County alone received 129,000 absentee ballots in the November 2020 election, said county Clerk Phil McGrane. “My rough estimate, based on our volume, is we would have finished (counting) some point maybe late Friday afternoon, had we not had that legislation. It would have taken us days.”

Instead, Ada County had final, unofficial results in the high-stakes Tuesday election, which included a hot presidential contest as well as numerous other positions, by 2:44 a.m. on Wednesday morning. The whole state had final, unofficial results not long after.

“I remember staying here through the end that night, and we did finish that night,” said Jason Hancock, deputy Idaho Secretary of State and elections supervisor. “It was still dark when I got home. I didn’t leave until the last county had reported.”

Idaho’s Election Night experience came in huge contrast to many other states, which saw their ballot-counting stretch out for weeks. Pennsylvania alone faced repeated delays, along with multiple lawsuits over the counting process.

absentee ballots file 5-19-20 by Brian

Idaho election officials process absentee ballots on May 19, 2020.

“That is going to make people get a little antsy about the results,” Hancock said. “I think it is certainly helpful to the confidence that people have in our elections when we can have our results come back timely.”

McGrane noted that in Ada County, a razor-close ACHD commissioner race saw incumbent Commissioner Rebecca Arnold defeated by challenger Alexis Pickering by just two votes, and those numbers were available when voters awoke the next morning.

If that close a race had taken days or weeks to determine, McGrane said, “That would have, I think, fed into some of the national narrative. … I think there was a lot of pride, at least what I heard in Idaho, that our election went well.”

However, Crane said, “I have never been a fan of opening ballots early.”

“I am still not a fan of it and do not want to see ballots opened early, especially with all the concerns around election integrity that happened in states like Georgia and Pennsylvania,” Crane said. “I think we need to proceed with caution. … Security and integrity in the process is of far more concern to me than expediency.”

Crane voted in favor of the first bill ballot-opening that passed during the August special session of the Idaho Legislature, after the Senate agreed to amend it to add a clause he proposed requiring any county taking advantage of the early-opening rule to have its ballots in a secure location with 24/7 streamed video monitoring. That bill, SB 1001a, passed both houses unanimously and was signed into law on Aug. 27. More than 20 Idaho counties took advantage of the new provision, McGrane said, including providing the video streaming.

But Crane, whose family business, Crane Alarm, provides video surveillance services, said he objected to how some of the counties did their video streaming by using YouTube. He said his amendment specified “non-proprietary” archiving of the video, and while YouTube does archiving, “That particular technology is only supported through YouTube. So it’s of grave concern. You can’t watermark the video stream with YouTube. With regular video surveillance, you can.”

Phil McGrane mug 2021

Phil McGrane

Crane said because of his legislative role in the issue, his family firm stayed out of the November courthouse surveillance business. “We did not do any work at any counties with respect to access control or video surveillance,” to avoid a conflict of interest, he said. “If counties would have contacted us, we would have declined the work.” However, he said, none did.

McGrane, who advocated for SB 1070 on behalf of the association of county clerks from across the state, said without the provision in November 2020, Idaho would have been seen delays like those in Pennsylvania, Arizona and Alaska, “where it took days and days to process the ballots. We would have been in the same boat.”

“It’s going to take the same amount of time and physical work,” McGrane said. “But doing it on the front end, we can do it more methodically.”

He called Crane’s amendment on video surveillance and security “a really good suggestion.”

“I think it proved really successful,” McGrane said. “We had no issues, no complaints from any of the candidates. It was super-transparent.”

“I think if anything, the 2020 election proved timeliness matters, in terms of what the public expects,” McGrane said. “It was pivotal to our success.”

Idaho law is now back to where it was before the August special session — absentee ballots still must be received by the time polls close on Election Day, but those that arrive earlier can’t be opened early, leading to a big crush after Idaho’s polls close at 8 p.m.

McGrane said Idaho’s huge surge in absentee voting was driven by the coronavirus pandemic. “I think we will (continue to) see an uptick in absentee voting, but I don’t think it will be as significant as anything we saw last year,” he said.

Crane said he believes Idahoans don’t like absentee ballots or mail-in voting, though a record 493,719 Idahoans chose to vote by absentee ballot in the November 2020 election — 56.2% of all Idaho ballots cast in that election, which saw record voter turnout.

“People in Idaho like to go to the polls,” Crane said, “and the further you get away from that process, of voters going to the polls on Election Day, the more opportunities you have for fraud.”

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