Podcast Episode: Ensuring Opportunities to Vote
Election bills are surfacing this legislative session on many topics, from voter identification and absentee ballots to safety at the polls. Secretary of State Phil McGrane sat down with producer Ruth Brown on Tuesday afternoon to walk through some of the bills moving around the statehouse, and his priorities as the state’s chief elections officer.
Editor’s note: This conversation was lightly edited for clarity.
Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports:
We have seen a lot of legislation come through the statehouse this year regarding voting. Let’s start with student IDs. A bill passed the House on Monday to prohibit the use of student IDs as a form of identification at the polls. What is your take on this?
Phil McGrane, Secretary of State:
You know, first, I’ll just say I think the reflection of so many pieces of legislation just shows how important elections are in people’s minds. This is actually the third session in a row where House Bill 1 has been an elections bill. That just kind of reflects overall what we’re seeing.
So seeing some of these – whether it’s student ID or some of the others come through – isn’t necessarily a surprise. It’s just us trying to figure out the right path and the right balance to make all these things work together. Student IDs is one example. That bill came out early. I was anticipating it would come out, as just part of the greater conversation regarding registration and voter ID at the polls. I am supporting the bill in terms of removing the student IDs, but that’s because there’s a companion bill that I’ve been working very closely with Rep. Brandon Mitchell on to update our registration requirements, to specify what forms of ID you can use to register to vote, what forms of proof of address you can use to show what your residence is, and a key component of that bill is including a free ID for anyone who needs one for the purposes of voting.
The standards used to produce student IDs isn’t quite the same as it is for all of the other forms of identification. Many times it’s just a a printer on a desk in a student office, printed by students. When we think about our driver’s license or other things, those requirements are higher. But honestly, the thing that has really influenced my opinion about IDs at the polls – I know this has been a national issue for a decade – is just having data and information I think we need to make important policy decisions, and this is a key area for that.
We introduced electronic poll books over the past two election cycles throughout Idaho. These poll books make it easier for poll workers, easier for voters, but they’re also collecting a lot of data and information. While we all would have assumed that a drivers license is the most common form of voter ID, we probably wouldn’t have realized just how common it was. In the November 2022 general election, 98.8% of registered voters showed a drivers license. It’s overwhelmingly the most common form of ID. On college campuses? Drivers license is overwhelmingly the form of ID. It’s surprising, but out of the near 600,000 people who voted in November, only 104 used a student ID card.
We think by companioning these bills together, we’ll actually be able to fill the gap to make sure that no one is deterred. We’ve already been meeting with the universities as an office on how we can expand voter information to students when they come to school. I think collectively, looking at this holistically, if we get all these bills together, it will kind of make sense in the end. Just right now, you know, it’s broken into pieces.
There was some concern from Democrats about having another form of identification, particularly one that has your local address. Say, you’re voting in Boise because you live in Boise, but maybe you are originally from Rigby and that’s where you got your drivers license. Do you have concern about that? What do you see as a remedy for that?
Oh, that’s a great example of just people understanding the process currently. Drivers licenses aren’t kept up to date and current, for any voter. ITD does not issue a new driver’s license when you update your address, so it’s very common, actually.
When we talk about identification at the polls, its sole purpose is to prove your identity. It’s not to prove your address. Hence why I mentioned we have this registration bill that breaks out, in part, what the requirements are for identification and then also what the requirements are for proof of residence.
It could be that your driver’s license is current, and it serves as both. But it’s very common for someone to use their driver’s license that has their old address – and this isn’t just for students, this is for anybody – and then combine it with, say, their car insurance or a rental agreement or something else. This is why it’s important that we combine all those pieces, because I actually think the question, the assumptions built into it don’t reflect actually what’s currently happening in the state.
There is a bill coming from Rep. Brandon Mitchell, R-Moscow. I wanted to talk about that a little bit. Those voter ID cards that the transportation department has agreed to make would be free, correct? Can you walk me through that?
Yeah, absolutely, I think that’s a key component. So as I mentioned, this is the bill that I’ve been working on related to registration. It provides common standards, regardless of what form you use to register. Right now, the law is broken up by different methods of registering to vote. We’re trying to standardize that. Also, when we usually talk about photo ID, we’re talking about the ID you show when you vote – so that’s when you’re already registered, you go in at the polls and they ask you for your ID. There’s a different standard for registering to vote. And actually, the standard to register to vote is much lower than the standard to vote.
It’s frustrating for poll workers and it’s frustrating for election officials because it’s just confusing having two different requirements. What we’re trying to do is merge those together to make them more uniform. This is where we spell out and make it more clear for anybody involved, here are the types of IDs you can use. Here’s what you can use for proof of residence that you are here in Idaho. We specifically included in there out-of-state drivers licenses because – you know, like we talked about earlier – your Washington drivers license still shows that you’re Ruth Brown and I’m Phil McGrane, if we had one. It’s just trying to make the process a little more streamlined.
A key part of that is, we know there are people who don’t necessarily have a drivers license. Maybe it’s a student who doesn’t want to drive at this point in time. So we’ve worked with the Idaho Transportation Department to provide a free ID for anyone who’s 18 years or older who needs one, and it’s a state issued ID card, so in addition to allowing them to vote or register to vote, it would also allow them to travel and do a number of other things you can do with a state-issued ID. We think this is a good balance. I’ve actually spoken to other secretaries from other states about how their programs have worked, and this seems to solve a lot of the gaps, especially with the low numbers of other IDs that we see used.
Another bill we saw come through earlier in the session from Rep. Joe Alfieri, R-Coeur d’Alene, would eliminate the use of affidavits at the polls. This is when an individual in lieu of showing an ID signs an affidavit saying, ‘I am who I am,’ basically. What is your take on eliminating affidavits?
I came into this session anticipating a lot of conversation regarding the personal ID affidavits. Any time you talk about identification, this always comes up. Again, I want to try and make sure we’re making data-informed decisions when we’re doing this. Statewide, we had just over 1,600 affidavits used in the last election – so certainly a lot more than what we were talking about related to the student IDs.
I’ve proposed a couple of different things. I’ve seen at least four different drafts of bills, including the one that was introduced related to it. Personally, I would like to see us tighten the security related to the affidavits, and I’ve made some proposals in terms of how we can do that, by adding additional personal identifying information that poll workers could verify when a voter doesn’t have an ID with them.
Right now, though, from talking to legislators – especially in the House – they wanted to start and pursue what we see from Rep. Alfieri removing that. I don’t think there’s any way we could remove the personal ID affidavit without those free IDs. I think that’s really important. The one thing that we have trouble with knowing is how many people really need something to assist them, like the personal ID affidavit, because they truly forgot their ID and it’s too far to go back and get. Versus what we see is – we always like to call them protest voters – most of the people we talk to who sign affidavits are people we know and they just philosophically don’t like this ID conversation.
I’m hoping that the debate on this will be healthy. I know the county clerks are watching it closely – just as our office is – to see where it goes. I don’t know what will happen with this particular bill, but I’m guessing that whether it moves forward or dies, this conversation has not ended. We will be talking about the personal ID affidavits for a while.
Another controversial bill that was introduced would have limited the use of absentee ballots. As you know, nearly 130,000 people voted by absentee in November. Do you have concerns around absentee ballot security? Would you support the bill?
Yeah, I think this is an important topic. What you’ll hear me say almost every time I testify on election bills right now is that, one, Idaho has secure elections. We have a very good system. We ran a very good election in November. In addition to that, security does not have to come at the cost of accessibility. You can have access to voting and have secure elections. I think too often they’re pitted against each other, and I just don’t believe that’s the case.
I’ve mentioned to the sponsors of this bill that the Secretary’s Office will be opposing it. We really think that absentee ballots are an important part of being able to vote in our state, and there’s a number of voters who utilize them. One of the misconceptions I’ve heard is that, you know, absentee ballot use is exploding and on this significant rise. While we certainly saw a huge uptick during COVID – especially when the state required people to vote absentee – we’ve actually seen it normalize. There’s been a healthy balance in our state of people who vote by mail through absentee ballots, people who vote in-person early before an election, and people who choose to vote on Election Day.
I actually think it’s one of the areas where Idaho stands out, is that we have all these different options. That’s not true in many states across the country, including many blue states. I want to do whatever I can to protect all the options that voters have. I’ve been sharing information with legislators to let them know. I think county clerks, talking to them, they think it’s important as well that we maintain access to absentee balloting. I think you’ll see a vigorous debate whenever this bill comes forward.
A lot of this discussion that we hear – around all of these bills – is regarding election security. As you just said, you feel that elections are secure. What what should voters know about election security? Are you confident in the state of Idaho?
First off, I’m very confident in our elections, having been a part of them my entire career and knowing the people who are working hard throughout all of our counties to run our elections. I think we have a great system. But, I also think that is in part because we have people who are vigilant, and we do have security measures in place to keep our ballots secure, to keep track of who’s voting, and to monitor everything throughout the process. This last year, one of the great steps we did was introduce post-election audits where we go through and hand count to verify that the equipment that we’re using to count votes is doing so accurately. That’s an important step. So there do need to be safeguards in place. I think when we talk about things like identification when you go vote, those are important conversations. But we always need to be trying to balance access as well as security. I think there are measurable steps we can continue to take to improve the security of our election.
One of the things that I’ve seen, both here locally and talking to my peers around the country, is we’re starting to see people who are trying to commit forms of fraud – not because they’re trying to cheat, but because they’re trying to test the system and prove that fraud is potential. All right, that doesn’t help the system, but it shows why we need to be vigilant. We have caught cases of people tampering with things that you’re like, ‘What? What is this person trying to do?’ So while it’s extremely rare that we actually see anybody commit fraud, and we are able to catch those and prevent them, we always need to be mindful of that.
I think we can expand the franchise and make sure every Idahoan who is eligible to vote has the opportunity to register and has the opportunity to vote, while making sure that our elections are accurate and are secure. You’ll see us continuing to take steps in that, both in my budget proposal where we have steps that we’re trying to update some of our systems and databases, but also simple things like adding the free ID as a method to ensure we have accessible identification for anyone who needs it, but that they can also make sure they go to the polls or vote absentee or whatever method suits them best.
On Monday, you pitched a bill to the Senate State Affairs Committee that would expand Idaho’s voter guide – or I suppose create one, depending on how you want to frame it. The bill would include candidates on the ballot, rather than the pamphlet we have now that just includes the initiatives and ballot questions. Walk me through the importance of this and what it would include.
Yeah, this is certainly one of my biggest priorities for this legislative session, is trying to answer the questions that I get most from voters. Whether it’s the Secretary of State’s Office, or any of the county clerks’ offices, the most common question we get is “Where is my voter guide?”
All of the surrounding states – or, as I like to refer to them as, feeder states -provide voter guides. So that’s California, Utah, Washington, Oregon, all provide a guide with candidate information so that voters, prior to heading to the polls, can look up who they are voting on and what are they are voting on, and who are they wanting to vote for?
Idaho, right now, we send out a little paper pamphlet that includes constitutional amendments and initiatives, but doesn’t include any candidate information. When people head to the polls, they know who they’re going to vote for president – but they often don’t know who their legislators are, and they certainly don’t know any of the county officials. People want to make good decisions. I truly believe, talking to voters throughout my career, they want to be informed. So the idea is to have the state provide a guide that shares all this information, gives a brief description of the candidate – information provided by the candidates – but also includes contact information and where voters can go to learn more. Too often, voters are relying on Google, but Google’s not always a great resource when you’re trying to look up a county clerk candidate or many of the positions on the ballot.
My hope is to get information out to voters right before every primary and general election, and really answer the call. One of the things we’re seeing is a need for this, because in the absence of a guide, we’re seeing partisan guides sent out. You know, I’ve also gotten a solicitation for a pay-to-play model where if you give $2,000, they’ll include you in their guide. I think we can do better than that in the state. I know voters are clamoring for information, so hopefully this will be a step to fill that gap.
Is your hope that it’ll be an unbiased publication? Is that the goal?
Oh, absolutely, that of course is the state’s position. We are in a great position – because candidates file with the state – to be able to gather information. We often see with local media, say, newspapers will produce a guide. One of the challenges we’re seeing with that is often the candidates aren’t responding, so the guides don’t include the information. Or similarly, the same newspaper is providing endorsements, and people feel there may be some bias. The idea here is to gather information directly from the candidates, and to provide that information to the voters. And I expect, just looking at our legislature, the submissions among the different members would look wildly different from one another in terms of what they highlight.
We’ve been doing a lot of research with the other states. I have samples from every state that produces a guide, and we’ve learned about both costs and the practical implementation steps, but also some of the lesson learned. For example, Arizona bans the candidates from wearing a hat in their photo. In Oregon, if a candidate wants to use an endorsement, they have to have an affidavit from the person that they’re saying that they’re quoting. We can actually learn a lot from states who’ve been through some of the trials and tribulations to do something that’s useful.
Really for candidates, it’s a great opportunity to get their information before voters. Often things that I’ll hear, you know, if we look at one like a governor’s race, people will think they know who the candidates are, and then they get their ballot and they don’t know who all these extra names are because more people have filed. This is a way to get all the information in an even-handed way out to voters so that they can research – and they may still make the same choices they would anyways. But they have the information to make an informed decision and be able to go – whether they’re voting absentee or headed to the polls – have information before they get to the voting booth.
One last subject I want to talk about is polling locations and safety at schools. You just addressed this a little bit. What is your office working on to improve safety at polling locations, specifically those that are also home to students?
Exactly. One of the big things we’ve all seen, unfortunately – it’s been covered nationwide – is just concerns about student safety when it comes to schools. In the state of Idaho, I know Superintendent Critchfield is very focused on making sure our students are safe. Part of that you’ve seen recently, like the West Ada School District has kind of closed down the schools during the day, in terms of who can access them.
Oddly, one of the exceptions to that is on Election Day. Schools are the most common form of polling location here in the state of Idaho. It’s important to our ability to run elections that we have access to schools as polling locations. So, we see this tension between bringing in voters to vote on Election Day and having students – we want to make sure there remains access. We have some of our counties in the state that are having a really difficult time finding an adequate number of places to vote. As a result, we’re often seeing turnout impacted. If you have to wait for an hour in line to vote, often that may be the deterrent from voting. If you can’t even find a parking space, because it’s so flooded with people at the local polling location, it deters people from coming back to try and vote. I want to make sure every voter has the opportunity to vote, including all the way until 8 p.m. on Election Day.
We’ve been working really closely with our education partners, the Idaho School Board Association, the Idaho superintendents association and others to try and figure out what is a good balance. We have a proposal that involves not having student instruction on school grounds at schools on Election Day. So, they may still have online classes, or more likely calendars get adjusted slightly. Too often there’s parent teacher conferences or in-service days near an election day, but not on it, so we’re looking at ways we can kind of overlap those two. Maybe it’s an in-service day for the school district and teachers are getting some of their professional education while we’re voting, but we remove that conflict of student safety on those election days. I think we’ve got a proposal coming through both the House and Senate education committees that will help us to do that, and hopefully expand more voting options when people head to the polls in November.
Secretary of State Phil McGrane, you’ve got a busy few weeks ahead of you. I appreciate your time.