Madison County precinct that posted signs sees lowest turnout in county

By Melissa Davlin, Devon Downey, Idaho Reports

In a year that broke midterm election voter turnout records, eastern Idaho’s Madison County saw the lowest turnout in the state, with just 44.5 percent of registered voters showing up. One area of Rexburg in particular had remarkably low turnout: University Precinct, which encompasses the BYU-Idaho campus, had just 13.4 percent turnout — one of the lowest turnouts in the state.


Copy of signs posted in Madison County precincts near BYU-Idaho. 

Madison County made the news on election day with signs at precincts near Brigham Young University-Idaho discouraging students from registering to vote in Idaho. The sign prompted a letter from the ACLU-Idaho and cries of voter suppression on social media.

Secretary of State Lawerence Denney told Idaho Reports he was concerned about the signs and asked that they be taken down. Though there can be consequences to out-of-state students registering to vote in Idaho, such as losing in-state tuition for graduate or medical school in their home states, that education should take place well before election day, Denney said.

There is no way to accurately measure who might have seen the signs and decided not to vote, nor what turnout would have been had the signs not been up for half the day.

But is the low turnout among university students that abnormal? Yes and no. In the last midterm general election, in 2014, University precinct had 17.6 percent turnout, while Madison County as a whole had a 42.3 percent turnout. In other words, the precinct had a slightly better showing, while the county had a lower percentage.

Precinct boundaries were redrawn and renamed after 2010, but in that year’s election, precincts near the BYU-Idaho campus also had low turnout, with one precinct seeing just 7 percent of its registered voters show up on election day.

College students are tricky voting demographic to reach, but other university towns across the state had higher turnouts. This year, in Moscow, home of the University of Idaho, no single precinct dipped below 34 percent. Idaho State University’s Pocatello didn’t have a precinct below 36 percent, and in Ada County’s Bronco County, precinct 1710, which includes Boise State University, still had 49 percent turnout.

Madison County Clerk Kim Muir told Idaho Reports on Monday that she wasn’t aware of Madison’s relatively low turnout compared to the rest of the state.

“I really don’t know what the factors were for that,” Muir said. “We don’t have a lot of college students show up except for presidential elections.”

She did note that the signs directed at students have been up in multiple elections, and that the county has split precincts since the 2016 presidential election.

Blaine County had the highest turnout at 76.3 percent. Statewide, the turnout was 66.7 percent.


IDHW board approves pending birth certificate, vaccination rule changes

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports


On Thursday, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Board of Directors voted to officially adopt proposed rule changes establishing a process to change the sex on birth certificates issued in Idaho.

The rule comes after a March U.S. District Court ruling, which ordered Idaho to allow transgender people born in the state to change the gender markers on their birth certificates.

Last week’s vote moves that rule change forward to the Idaho Legislature for final approval during the 2019 session.

Elke Shaw-Tulloch, administrator for the Division of Public Health at IDHW, said since the initial rule proposal, the state of Idaho has received 66 applications to change birth certificates. Of those, 40 have already been processed, while the rest are still pending. Most of the applications have been for adults, though 11 have been on behalf of minors.

Shaw-Tulloch noted that because the rule was the result of a court order, it did not go through the typical administrative negotiated rule-making process.

Another rule change adds a booster of meningococcal vaccination to the immunization requirements for students entering the 12th grade. The board also adopted rules clarifying that parents may submit a signed statement exempting their children from immunization requirements, as opposed to a form provided by the school or licensed daycare facility.

The department received 9 comments opposed to the meningococcal vaccination requirement, and 44 comments supporting the change.

Like the birth certificate rule, those rule changes, which have been in effect since May, will be presented to the Idaho Legislature for final approval during the 2019 session.


On percentages and raw votes

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

If you’ve read any election postmortems, you saw this: Despite national press attention, Paulette Jordan got roughly the same percentage of votes as Democratic governor candidate AJ Balukoff did four years ago.

And that’s true. However, turnout was so high, Jordan ended up getting nearly the same number of votes — 231,065 — as Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter did that year, at 235,405. Balukoff, meanwhile, had 169,556 votes.

What’s more, lieutenant governor candidate Kristin Collum got more votes than Otter did, at 240,292. Superintendent candidate Cindy Wilson got 288,666 votes, a new record for an Idaho Democratic statewide candidate. Gov. Cecil Andrus won his 1990 election with 217,801 votes — though Idaho’s population has almost doubled since then.

So yes, percentages matter. That’s how candidates win. But Idaho politics isn’t just about Tuesday’s vote, and it’s not just about these three candidates. It’s about the long game. It’s about the legislative and county seats Democrats picked up around the state on Tuesday.

If the Idaho Democratic Party can hang onto that momentum, they won’t flip the entire state blue, but they may have more sway in local and legislative races.


Buckle up. The fight over Medicaid expansion is far from over.

Analysis by Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

On Tuesday, Idaho voters sent a message to the Idaho Legislature by passing Medicaid expansion, with 60 percent of voters favoring Proposition 2.

But the fight isn’t over. Opponents of Medicaid expansion still have a big say in how — or if — the program will be implemented. 

On Wednesday morning, Wayne Hoffman, president of Idaho Freedom Foundation, released a statement suggesting the group will pursue a legal challenge, calling Proposition 2 “poorly worded and likely unconstitutional.”

“We will soon announce our next steps to protect Idaho taxpayers and future generations of Americans by preventing Proposition 2 from taking effect,” Hoffman wrote. Idaho Freedom Foundation communication director Dustin Hurst declined further comment.

Regardless of the IFF’s next moves, lawmakers will also get their say. Starting in January, the Idaho Legislature will tackle how to fund the expansion, and whether to tack on sideboards such as an able-bodied work requirement for recipients.

In the lead-up to the general election, much of the conversation focused on whether the Legislature would try to repeal Medicaid expansion if voters passed it. That almost certainly won’t happen — not only has governor-elect Brad Little said he would uphold the will of the voters, but even lawmakers who adamantly opposed Proposition 2 said a repeal wouldn’t be likely.

The question, rather, will come down to funding. In an Oct. 19th Idaho Reports panel discussion, Rep. Tom Dayley said Medicaid expansion might mean the state wouldn’t be able to fund the fifth year of the career ladder, a plan for teacher pay raises. Other lawmakers, including Rep. Wendy Horman, who helps craft the public schools budget on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, opposed expansion because of education funding concerns.

But in an Oct. 31 press conference, Sen. Fred Martin, vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, flatly rejected the notion that education funding would suffer under expansion. Rep. Patrick McDonald, vice chairman of the House Education Committee, echoed those sentiments — though both McDonald and education committee chairman Julie Van Orden lost their re-election bids.

Education isn’t the only potential budgetary casualty of Medicaid expansion. A grocery tax exemption — a popular proposal among both lawmakers and constituents in recent years — would cost the state an estimated $26 million in general fund revenues. Though momentum for repealing the tax on food has been building in recent years, concerns over cash flow might stymie that for the 2019 session.

There are other potential revenue sources. House Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane suggested lawmakers might go after tax exemptions given to hospitals.

In Idaho, not-for-profit hospitals are exempt from paying property and sales taxes. Those exemptions were created so the hospitals could provide charity care for people who couldn’t afford their medical treatments.

“We gave (hospitals) a mechanism to go and do it yourself, and that mechanism was tax breaks,” Crane told Idaho Reports in October. If hospitals are pushing for Medicaid expansion, Crane argued, the exemptions should be repealed.

Property taxes generally go to local taxing districts, bonds, and levies — not the state general fund, which would pay for part of Medicaid expansion.

That sales tax exemption was valued at an estimated $33 million this year. However, a tax exemption’s value doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual savings the state would see from eliminating it, tax officials pointed out in a 2019 revenue report.

In October, Brian Whitlock, president and CEO of the Idaho Hospital Association, said getting rid of the hospital tax exemptions would result in an “increased tax on Idaho patients.”

“Why would someone suggest a tax increase when the funds to pay for Medicaid expansion already exist in the state’s budget?” Whitlock said in a statement to Idaho Reports. “The latest data shows that Idaho hospitals provided more than $272 million in uncompensated care — either through charity care or bad debt. Medicaid expansion is not a windfall to hospitals; it will only reduce the amount of uncompensated care and the corresponding cost shift within the system.”

Funding isn’t the only issue. House Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Fred Wood, R-Burley, said he expects to see proposed restrictions on who would qualify for Medicaid under the expanded program.

Wood, who campaigned for expansion, told Idaho Reports in October he would consider an “appropriately crafted” work requirement for able-bodied people, with considerations for what might happen under a recession. Wood’s colleagues, however, may have different ideas for what “appropriately crafted” might mean.

In short, buckle up. The next few months are going to be critical.


Paths to victory: What it will take for Idaho Democrats to win

Analysis by Devon Downey, Idaho Reports


Idaho Democrats are hoping that the “blue wave” will make its way here and carry candidates across the state to surprise victories.

Statewide, Democrats have their best chances in two races: Lt. Governor and Superintendent of Public Instruction. Both of these races are low profile, at least compared to the other races, and either are open or facing an unpopular incumbent.

The Lieutenant Governor race is interesting because of who the candidates are. Democratic nominee Kristin Collum is an Army veteran and former Micron and HP employee. Republican nominee Janice McGeachin was a state legislator for 10 years, before deciding that she would not seek a sixth term. McGeachin is also a small business owner and operates automotive businesses.

Collum originally started her campaign running alongside Jordan, claiming that they were running as a “joint ticket”, but has more recently distanced herself from Jordan and has been campaigning as the moderate choice that eschews ideologues from both the left and the right.

McGeachin has from the beginning of her campaign run as a staunch conservative, emphasizing her pro-life agenda and fighting against Proposition 2.

A race between a self-described moderate and a conservative can have some unexpected results. McGeachin won her five-way primary with just under 30% of the vote; far from the consensus choice among Republican voters. Her push for a resolution in the 2018 Idaho GOP convention stating the parties opposition to Prop 2 also may be unpalatable for Republicans like Reps. Fred Wood and Christy Perry, who have both been campaigning for Medicaid expansion.

As Idaho Reports producer Seth Ogilvie reported, McGeachin’s relationship with fringe right-wing groups has been controversial. This has led to social media attacks and claims by McGeachin’s campaign and the Idaho Republican Party that these have gone so far as to be threatening.

McGeachin is still a slight favorite, but Republicans and Independents who are uncomfortable with her views and relationships/sympathies with fringe groups may vote for the more moderate Collum. This was part of the logic behind the endorsements of four major Idaho newspapers who endorsed Collum:

The race for Superintendent of Public Instruction is different because incumbent Sherri Ybarra is running for her second term. Ybarra’s tenure has been heavily criticized from both Republicans and Democrats. She has been criticized for her absence in the legislature, her cold relationships with lawmakers, and for crafting plans without input from all stakeholders.

Wilder school superintendent Jeff Dillon challenged Ybarra in the Republican primary, and received 41% of the vote by criticizing her lack of leadership.

Similarly, lawmakers have criticized Ybarra for not showing up to the legislature. Clark Corbin has a list of concerns that lawmakers have had with Ybarra.

Ybarra also has a history of working alongside accused sexual harassers. Earlier this month she held a fundraiser at a bar hosted by former Mountain Home principal William McCarrel Jr., who was indefinitely suspended from teaching after multiple accusations of sexual harassment.

Ybarra’s defense was “We’re not around kids right now, we’re at a fundraiser”, not acknowledging the fact that McCarrel’s accusations were not from kids.

Her former spokesman, Dan Goicoechea, resigned after less than a month because of harassment complaints ranging from racial to sexual harassment in his previous post.

Democratic nominee Cindy Wilson has far outraised Ybarra, and earned endorsements from former Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice and Republican Attorney General Jim Jones as well as Frank VanderSloot, a billionaire who typically bankrolls Republican candidates. Examples like when Republican Mitt Romney ran for president and VanderSloot fundraised and bundled over $60 million dollars for him from the 2008 and 2012 elections.

It is hard to beat an incumbent, but because of the baggage and mixed results Idaho’s education system has seen under Ybarra, this may be Democrats best hope of winning a statewide seat.

Other races in Idaho could also turn towards Democrats, although they are much less likely. While certainly underdogs, Paulette Jordan, Cristina McNeil, and Aaron Swisher have a chance to win seats held by Republicans for years. All three of these races are uphill battles, and the Republicans are heavily favored in each of them, but if everything goes right for the Democrats, we could see some surprising results.

Jordan has excited Democrats across Idaho who see her campaign as a legitimate chance for control of Idaho’s highest office. The Idaho GOP seems to think that she is a threat as well, constantly attacking Jordan on social media, particularly Twitter where they have mentioned her almost obsessively.

Jordan’s path is narrow, but possible. A Jordan win will need high Democratic turnout, low Republican turnout, and a strong win among independents. Idaho Republicans make up a majority of registered voters, but there are some caveats.

The biggest among them is the closed primaries that the Idaho Republican Party uses. The only way for voters to vote in the Republican primary is to register as a Republican. In a state that, in recent decades, is typically very Republican, this may be the only way for voters to have a voice on who gets elected. In fact, multiple statewide and legislative offices have no Democratic nominees, and Democrats don’t even have enough candidates to win either chamber of the legislature if every Democrat won.

Because of this, Idaho may have more crossover voters than would typically be expected. The second largest group in Idaho is unaffiliated voters. Just because voters are unaffiliated doesn’t mean they are swing voters. However, for a Democrat to win statewide, they will have to do well among unaffiliated voters and get some registered Republicans to vote for them.

Polling in Idaho has been sparse, and campaigns that rely heavily on young and non-white voters can be hard to poll because these groups don’t vote consistently. Without polling though, we don’t have a baseline to go off of.

The last time there was an open race for Idaho Governor was in 2006, another good year for Democrats nationwide. Governor Butch Otter defeated Democratic nominee Jerry Brady by just over 38,000 votes, or 8%.  Idaho tends to have closer elections for open gubernatorial races, and Jordan is hoping this trend continues.

But Jordan is still the underdog. Jordan’s campaign has had multiple missteps ranging from campaign staff shake-ups to questionable campaign spending and relationships with PACs. These could turn away voters who are uncomfortable with the instability in her campaign.

FiveThirtyEight’s Governor forecast gives Jordan a 1 in 20 chance of winning in their classic model that accounts for polls, fundraising, previous voting, historical trends, and more ( Jordan can win, but it is unlikely.

Little’s path to victory is easier. Other than the fact that FiveThirtyEight gives him a 19 in 20 chance of winning, Little’s history in Idaho should help him. Little won a contested Republican primary against two candidates trying to run as outsiders, and the race was called earlier than many expected it to be.

Similar to Gov. Butch Otter, Little may have some critics who believe that he is not conservative enough. Certainly, his willingness to accept Medicaid expansion, even if he won’t clarify his personal belief on the issue, has drawn controversy. But these voters are unlikely to vote for Jordan, who is undoubtedly more liberal than Little.

The economic state of Idaho should help Little as well. A major factor in gubernatorial elections is the direction of the state’s economy. If the economy is going poorly, historically smaller parties can make unexpected gains, such as Democrats in Louisiana in 2015 and potentially Kansas in 2018. Idaho’s unemployment is at a historic low, and tax revenues continue to come in over state projections.

Little needs only to turn out the same electorate that Idaho has had for decades. If he can do this, Little should be able to overcome a surprisingly high-profile Democratic challenger.

McNeil and Swisher have two different paths. While both are running for Congress, only McNeil is running for an open seat. Open seats tend to have more upsets because the incumbency advantage disappears, and the polling has been sparse. The only poll in models like FiveThirtyEight’s congressional model is from Dan Jones and Associates, conducted back in late June and early July. While McNeil was within 8% of Republican candidate Russ Fulcher, historically the First District has been very conservative. Democrats across the state will point to  Congressman Walt Minnick’s victory in 2008 as proof that the district is competitive. That had more to do with a controversial incumbent than being a swing district. Minnick lost his re-election fight to Rep. Raul Labrador two years later by over 10%.

CNN’s Forecast projects Fulcher to win by a whopping 31%, with a 20% win as his worst outcome based on the margin of error. This seat is listed as more Republican than over 400 other House seats according to the Cook Partisan Voter Index. A Fulcher loss would be a major upset, and his path to victory merely rests on the R that will be next to his name.

However, Fulcher seems to have fallen prey to conspiracy theories, suggesting during his debate on Idaho Public Television that Democrats may have organized the group of migrants trying to reach the United States border for asylum.

We don’t know how much of an impact this will have, especially since the debate was just a week before election day. But using innuendos and conspiracy theories to score political points may push away some voters, even if others believe them to be true.

So can McNeil win an upset? Certainly, but it is less likely than Jordan’s win. In fact, if McNeil is to even have a chance at winning, Jordan probably needs to be elected governor and McNeil get some votes by riding on her coattails.

Swisher, on the other hand, is going against an entrenched incumbent who has represented the Second District for two decades, and has been involved in Idaho politics for another decade and a half.

For Swisher to beat Simpson, he has to hope that there is a strong anti-incumbent push by voters. Swisher also can play up the fact that even though Simpson states he is against Trump, he has voted with Trump’s position all but once according to FiveThirtyEight’s Trump score, meaning he has voted as the president prefers 98.9% of the time. His only vote against the president’s position was on a sanctions bill that all but 5 members of the U.S. House voted in favor of; not exactly a controversial piece of legislation.

Simpson made a big deal out of his not voting for Trump in 2016, and it is possible that the voters in the Second District are not satisfied that Simpson’s opposition has only been lip service.

All that said, this is probably the hardest race for Idaho Democrats to win. Simpson has a substantial incumbency advantage, not to mention that he can argue his importance on the appropriations committee which he is running to be the chair of. Simpson can make a compelling argument that his role in Congress can benefit Idaho, and Swisher will have a tough time negating that.

Overall, Democrats have some races they should be excited about. There are legislative seats that can be picked up by Democrats, and both the Lt. Governor and Superintendent of Public Instruction’s offices can be flipped. While it looks unlikely that Democrats will be able to win back the governor’s office or either congressional seat, the biggest Democratic issue of the previous decade can be implemented in Idaho.

Idaho Democrats will most likely see an Idaho version of the blue wave. How big it is remains to be seen, but Democrats are in a better position than they have been in a long time to finally make some cracks in Idaho’s red wall.


From a 2010 lawsuit to Proposition 2: Where does Wasden stand?

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

One reason Idaho is currently considering Medicaid expansion is a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that, in part, allowed individual states to decide whether to expand their programs.

The decision was the result of a 2010 lawsuit from thirteen state attorneys general, including Idaho’s Lawrence Wasden, over the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. The Supreme Court ultimately upheld significant parts of the ACA.

At the time, Wasden’s arguments focused not on the merits of the ACA, but on whether the law violated the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution. Since then, Wasden has had little to say about Medicaid expansion, other than reviewing and certifying the proposed statutory language last November.

So as one of the attorneys general who initially sued, where does Wasden personally stand on Proposition 2?

“As Attorney General, I litigate based on the law and the State of Idaho’s best interests,” Wasden said in a statement to Idaho Reports. “I vote as a citizen and, like many Idahoans, prefer to keep my ballot choices private.”

Wasden joins Republican gubernatorial candidate Brad Little in declining to say how he views Medicaid expansion. Republican lieutenant governor candidate Janice McGeachin opposes Proposition 2.

Since 2012, five of the 13 states that initially sued over the ACA have expanded Medicaid, and another three — including Idaho — are considering expansion.



Nez Perce Co sheriff’s Facebook account makes fun of unreported sexual assault

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports 
A post on an Idaho sheriff’s Facebook page is raising questions in his community over how sexual assault victims are treated.

On Friday afternoon, a Facebook account belonging to Nez Perce County Sheriff Joe Rodriguez posted an image of an elderly woman with the caption, “My ass was groped in 1886. I waited till now to tell about it.”


Screenshot courtesy Jesse Maldonado

The post doesn’t say as much, but the allusion is clear: The past week’s national headlines have been dominated by 36-year-old accusations of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh, whom President Donald Trump nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court in July. The allegations stalled the Senate committee vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and critics have asked accuser Christine Blasey Ford why she didn’t report the alleged attack when it happened.

Idaho Democratic Party second vice chairman Jesse Maldonado, a Lewiston native, posted a screenshot of the since-deleted post, prompting a vigorous discussion of sexual assault and social media use.

“And people wonder why sexual assault victims don’t come forward. This is Nez Perce County’s Sheriff. Despicable, Joe,” Maldonado wrote. “How about a town hall with women and let them tell you why they don’t come forward and speak up?”

After dozens of comments — most criticizing Rodriguez — a Facebook account belonging to Rodriguez’s wife claimed the sheriff hadn’t, in fact, posted the original image. The account then posted a statement allegedly from Rodriguez himself:

“Sexual harassment is something I would not tolerate or deal with in any fashion, on or off duty. So when I heard of this story I was wondering what happened. My wife had the message sent to her and she believed she was on her Facebook when it was posted. So to those who believe we would tolerate this I guess you really don’t know either my wife or I very well. Some like to poke the bear, just to get a reaction and those start to feed the story more than what it really is. A poor joke, yes. Bad taste, yes. We have to look at the big picture when we start to post or react to a story. What truth is there. Did you investigate what was said or believe it was true. Kind of lets you know who really is a friend and who says they are a friend to your face, but behind close doors has another reaction.
If this has offended you I apologize,
Sheriff Joe Rodriguez”

But the issue isn’t just about a Supreme Court nomination, offensive jokes, or social media etiquette.

According to RAINN, two out of three sexual assaults nationwide are not reported to law enforcement. And according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, just 12 percent of reported sex crimes in Nez Perce County resulted in arrests between the years of 2009 and 2015. Statewide, that percentage was 24 percent during the same time period.

The controversy prompted an announcement from Lewiston police officer Terry Koeper: “We must, as neighbors, friends and family members stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those who have faced these appalling acts against them and put an end to sexual assault in our community,” he wrote on his campaign Facebook page. “I ran against our current sheriff in 2016 for a multitude of reasons, and after these revelations, plan to do so again in 2020.”

Rodriguez has not yet returned a request for comment. This post will be updated if that changes.