Republican Phil McGrane is running for his first term as Idaho Secretary of State. His opponent, Democratic candidate Sean Keenan, didn’t respond to our invitation to submit materials for debate consideration.
This year we at Idaho Public Television, along with debate organizers nationwide, saw a number of candidates decline to participate in debates or fail to respond to our invitations in the first place. As Federal Election Commission rules say we cannot hold a debate with just one candidate, we’re allowing those who did qualify for the debates a chance to sit down with us for a one-on-one interview in which they can answer questions much like they would have received in a traditional debate setting.
Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports host:
Clerk McGrane, thank you so much for joining us today. Why do you want to be Idaho’s Secretary of State?
Phil McGrane, Idaho Secretary of State candidate:
As you know – I’ve had the opportunity to be on Idaho Reports many times and talk about elections over the years – I am an elections junkie. I love this stuff. I’ve had the great privilege of working with Secretary Denny and Secretary Ysursa over the years, helping make sure Idaho’s elections stand out, and that when people head to the polls, they can have confidence that their vote counts and it counts the same as everybody else’s, and that nobody is interfering with our elections in any way.
And I think we really do have a great system here in Idaho. I’m proud to have been a part of it. I think it’s great, the work that the clerks and others do throughout the state. I’m really excited about the opportunity to collaborate with the clerks throughout the state, to continue to build on our elections.
Especially in a time where, when you look over the last two years, I think there’s been more uncertainty and doubt than I’ve ever seen throughout my career, we really want to try and build trust in the system, and to rebuild the confidence both here locally and nationally. It’s not because of anything that’s happened here, but certainly there are those doubts. As I’ve traveled around the campaign trail, it’s been great to engage with people and talk about our elections – the things that we do behind the scenes that people don’t realize – and hopefully expand information for voters and access for voters coming into the future.
You say that there haven’t been issues here in Idaho, but your two primary opponents disagreed on that with you. Of course, you emerged victorious in that three-way primary, but what are you going to do if you’re elected to ensure that people do have trust in the system?
I think one of the biggest things – and we’ve done a lot of this over the last year or so – is providing tours, handing out information to voters. One of my goals for the upcoming legislative session (that I’m probably revealing early) is to try and get more voter information out to the public, specifically looking at trying to produce a voter guide. Both the Secretary of State’s office and the county clerks’ offices, it’s the most requested thing we get: it’s “where is my voter guide?” Because we have so many people moving into the state from other locations that are accustomed to having that information.
I think that’s a tool to both get information about who’s running for office – like, who are you going to be voting for? Is there an election coming up? – but it’s also a tool to share information about what we’re doing to make sure our elections run smoothly, whether that’s opportunities for early voting, opportunities to vote absentee, or where’s your polling place, where is your district information? This year is a great example of that with redistricting. We’re trying to get information out to voters. And I think having a secretary really engaged with that outreach will be a big part of building that public confidence.
Redistricting is the process of redrawing legislative and congressional district lines. In some cases, those local polling places and precincts change as a result.
Yes, precincts change.
In other states, election workers and elected officials have faced threats. They’ve been the subject of baseless conspiracy theories. If elected, does your office have a role in actively combatting false narratives that lead to those kinds of threats?
I think the role of the office really is to try and respond, and to provide information. You know, transparency. I know you’ve chatted with Controller Woolf. He’s a big advocate of transparency. So am I. We’ve really been engaged, whether it’s with the media or providing information out there.
Recently, I talked to the Ada County Central Committee for the Republican Party, and I was just sharing the absentee data because it’s important for them to see. You hear these narratives that go around about what happens, but right now statewide, there are two Republicans requesting an absentee ballot for every one Democrat. And that’s not the narrative that people hear, but it’s because there are plenty of people who just have busy lives, and this is the most convenient way for them to vote. I think getting that information out there and being open about things helps achieve that.
What you mentioned in terms of what you’re seeing across the country, we do see that here. There have been threats to election officials here. Certainly, I’ve faced threats myself. But it’s really important that we have people who are willing to put in the work to make sure we protect our system. I mean, our country really does depend on people having confidence in their elections. Both confidence that their vote counts, but also confidence that the process and the system work, such that regardless of who wins – whether it’s the person you voted for or not – that you can have confidence in the outcome at the end of the day, that it is a reflection of the will of the community.
We always see the change of power. I think this is one of the important things to facilitate, is cooperation. For example, with all the statewide officials that are running, there’s going to be a lot of turn-over at the state. Can we make those transitions work smoothly? I think as a state we can. And I think we have a lot of good things going here in the state of Idaho. So, I hope to be a leader in that space. I know you’re a big advocate of civility and just how good government can work. Hopefully my career up to this point has represented that, and it will as Secretary of State.
Should the Secretary of State be more proactive in fighting some of those threats that you and other clerks have faced, or should that role be more reactive as some of those narratives take form?
I guess I don’t know exactly where you’re going in terms of what you mean by being proactive. I do think voter outreach and getting information out to the public, in my sense that is part of the Secretary of State’s job, is to inform people about the elections and the opportunities.
There’s always going to be some level of discontent or dissatisfaction, right? We have a wide breadth of political views in our state. You’re going to navigate that. But I think by and large, you can still ask people here – people do have confidence. They do think our state is on the right track. We just need to continue to build on that. I think it’s a disservice to some of the public if we try to focus all of our attention for one small group who is upset about something rather than making sure we’re serving all Idahoans. You know, one of my goals is to serve everybody in the state regardless of the political stripe. I am a Republican. I’m running as the Republican nominee. But my intention is to serve all Idahoans as Secretary of State.
One of the other important roles that the Secretary of State’s office fills is monitoring campaign finance, publishing the campaign finance information, and reviewing any complaints about the misuse of funds. Should those campaign finance laws have more teeth? In other words, if there are violations, should the penalties be higher?
I’ve been very active in this space when it comes to campaign finance over the years. It’s almost been five years I think since we had our first interim committee on campaign finance reform. And if you were to go back, I wrote a letter to all of the members of the committee describing what we really need to do, and we’ve seen some of it implemented. I helped work on that.
But the first thing we need to do is focus on making it easy to comply. Everyone focuses on enforcement, and that’s where they want to go, is like, how do we hold people accountable? And we should. But the number one reason [there are violations] is our campaign finance laws are currently confusing. I would like to see them refined and rewritten to make it easier.
I talked to a constituent last night who is one of the legislative candidates right now. Their spouse is the person doing it. That’s actually the most common campaign treasurer, is someone’s spouse, and we have these complicated laws for them to follow. We need to make it simple for people to do the right thing. If we want them to do the right thing, make it easy to do the right thing.
Then we need to focus on transparency. As you know, working with Secretary Denney, we made it so instead of going to 79 different websites and locations, it is now all in one spot. I think we can continue to build on that transparency, using technology to shed light on where money is coming and going in Idaho politics.
And once we get those two pieces then we can focus on, as you put it, “teeth in it” and enforcement. I do think there are instances where certainly there isn’t enforcement where there could be. But we need to get to a place where we’re comfortable with it, too. Too many candidates and campaigns want to bludgeon each other with campaign finance violations. That’s not how it should work, right? In some instances, if someone doesn’t put a disclaimer, they should be fined. But it’s just like getting a speeding ticket. We’ve all experienced that where, yes, we were breaking the law. We were penalized for it, and we move forward. It’s not going to make or break anybody’s campaign. The goal is transparency so the public can make informed decisions when they go to the polls. And that’s what I’m going to try and achieve.
The Secretary of State is also responsible for business services, not just elections. Is there anything on this side of the Secretary of State’s office that you would do differently?
You know, it’s one of those areas I’m looking forward to getting involved in. Right now, I serve as the county recorder. The county recorder complements the business side of the Secretary of State. Businesses work with the Secretary of State, property records like homeowners work with the county recorder – it’s very, very similar functions.
I think there’s been opportunities with technology to provide more access, but I really want to give credit to Secretary Denney. Their office has done a great job of improving the technology and access. The state gets lots of compliments, whether it’s by the legal community or the business community or banking community who uses that site regularly. So right now, from what I largely hear, it’s working very well. But as we continue to evolve and more technological opportunities come up, I’m hopeful we can continue to make it easier to do business here in Idaho.
If you’re elected, you’ll also sit on the state’s Land Board – one of the lesser-known roles for some of these constitutional offices, but a very important one. We’ve seen a lot of recent attention because of the attempt to sell off parcels on Cougar Island, which is a popular spot in Valley County. Is there anything that you would do differently as a member of the Land Board than what those who have sat on there for the last four or eight years have done?
It’ll be interesting to actually get in there, right? I don’t want to prejudge any of the things, but one of the things that I bring to the Land Board that I’m excited to do and engage with is I happen to be an attorney. Typically, the Attorney General is the only attorney sitting on the Land Board. (Certainly, when Secretary Ysursa was there, he was also an attorney.) I bring that extra opportunity to have debate and dialogue over some of these decisions.
I will even say, you know, I’m kind of personally proud of it; I debated with Justice Horton in a bar once about Land Board policy, in terms of how to make these decisions. When you look at what the constitution says in terms of maximizing the return for the endowment, what does that look like? Cougar Island is a great example. You saw this desire and opportunity that they saw to get some money for the endowment, but it didn’t go as planned. That’s very clear.
And I think we really need to look at our resources and say, “Where are we getting the most yield? Where are some of the biggest political battles?” You look at grazing fees. There’s a lot of political battles that happen over grazing fees, but not a lot of money goes to the endowment that comes out of that. I think prioritizing should be really focused on the beneficiaries and how we actually maximize the return, rather than getting into all these different disputes.
I think, by and large, the Land Board works very well. Just this past year, the Land Board set another record in terms of disbursements to the beneficiaries. That means things are going well. I want to continue that success and I don’t want to do anything to disrupt it, but we really do need to look at the long term in terms of how we invest that land and use it. I’m looking forward to the opportunity being engaged in that area.
Might that long-term discussion include potential changes to the constitution, to change the way that the Land Board is allowed to look at that balance between the maximum financial return and the benefits to local communities or other factors?
I think it could. I think it’s an interesting question, because I was meeting with Secretary Ysursa recently, and he mentioned that they’ve previously changed the constitution trying to make it clearer. And one of his things is it clearly didn’t do what they had hoped it would do in terms of clarifying that. Maybe there’s an opportunity to review that.
I also think how we work with local units of government, that’s always a contentious issue in terms of property tax revenue loss. Especially in these small communities that really do need every dime they can to survive. You know, so much focus is on growth in our state right now, but there’s half of our state that is shrinking, and people don’t realize that. Coincidentally, a lot of our public lands are in the communities that are shrinking, not the ones that are growing. So we have to be a player in that, because we are one of the large landowners. Working – whether it’s with the feds or others – and trying to figure out how we balance the needs of those local communities and maximize the return for the endowment. It could involve a constitutional amendment. I mean, certainly my head’s not there right now, but I think collaboratively the board can work on some policies that will ultimately benefit everybody.
Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane, Republican nominee for Secretary of State, thank you so much for joining us.