Secretary of State Ben Ysursa is Idaho's top election official. And the keeper of the Great Seal of Idaho. But Ysursa, who rose to deputy secretary of state in 1974 and was elected to the top position in 2002, is not yet sure what to make of this remarkable election year. The combination of record absentee voting, Obama's showing in Boise and the potential for an unusually large youth vote are making the best of the prognosticators a bit more cautious.
How do you predict turnout in an election like this?
We're going to come out with a fearless prognostication, but we've been saying, we think we're going to be around 80 percent of registered voters turn out, which would be, not necessarily a record percentage wise, but as far as voters. Four years ago, we had something like 612,000 people show up; we think that will be shattered. I'm saying 650 ... 700,000. But we'll come out with more numbers based on absentee voters.
The wild card here in Idaho is Election Day-registration. We don't know how many.
I went and voted last week out at Barrister [Drive], in person.
Did you have to wait?
I did have to wait, but Barrister is pretty congested, not just because of voting, it's the driver's license and everything else there.
Every county in the state is experiencing an increase in absentee voting and interest. We're not a toss-up state, we're not getting hammered by the national people at all, but it's an open presidential seat in the election and we have an open U.S. Senate race, though you'd certainly think that Jim Risch has—at least the polls show—a pretty solid lead. But they're still spending money. The First Congressional District is very, very competitive. You can tell how close races are if out-of-state committees are coming in. Both the Democrat and Republican national committees have now weighed in on that First Congressional District race. The Obama campaign and what they've done, and energized folks. What they did in February was unbelievable here, at the caucus and for Sen. Obama to fill Taco Bell Arena at 8 in the morning.
How early will we be able to call races?
Some interesting things have happened this year and I'm a big believer: the more turnout, the better. It's exciting times here and we think it's going to be a record turnout. We think it's going to be a long evening ... and morning.
Ada County is going to have upwards of 70,000 ballots there early. They will start counting early, if they can get some sort of results out fairly early, it will be not just a small trend, it will be 70,000-plus votes cast. So you should be able to see a trend here in Ada County. Now people need to remember, Ada County is split by a congressional district.
Are there any states we ought to be watching for problems on Election Day?
The usual suspects, I think, Florida, I think Ohio are the ones that folks will be watching. The toss-up states that have gone to maybe a different equipment ... I happen to get on every morning, electionline.org, and that shows you what's going on around the country. Everybody is experiencing heavy, heavy turnouts.
The prayer of every election official is large margins. So we pray, we really want the margins to be significant enough that a slight glitch in something doesn't prolong it forever and have recounts ... the 2000 story in Florida. We do have new equipment, in Ada County, our largest county, our second largest county Canyon County.
Both were testing at the Primary, right?
Canyon did not use optical scan in the primary. They switched, so this is their first and it's kind of a baptism by fire over there. This is their first shot with the optical scan ballots. Now those ballots, when I say new equipment, they're new equipment here. Optical scans have been used in Idaho for 15 ... 20 years, in other counties.
What's your election night like?
We're here. Obviously, we turn on the TV. And the counties, they have our numbers, most of the calls are troubleshooting calls. The ones after the polls close are the ones you don't really like. Because that's usually from a county that says, "our equipment has stopped," or something. The ones during the day, the No. 1 call we get on Election Day is "where do I vote?" But folks should get online. We have IdahoVotes.gov. We have a polling place finder. It has a map.
Right now statewide, it's like 80,000 people have already voted. The idea was to reduce the stress and pressure on Election Day. We're going to have to wait to see if that happens. Normal absentee voting in Idaho, four years ago, we were at like 15-16 percent statewide. We're expecting that to be in the mid-20s this time, maybe approaching 30 percent, so that should reduce the stress on Election Day, but the way this year's going, we might have a long day out at the polls, too.
You've been an advocate for more absentee voting. Where is that going in Idaho?
There are some legislators who have raised concerns. They don't like absentee voting. There ought to be more responsibility, people ought to come to the polls ...
The key point for me is, I think elections are for voters and Idaho has a history of making the elections accessible. We're one of eight states that has Election Day registration, so making it easier to vote and exercise your franchise, I think, is a positive step. It's a work in progress.
Good ideas take time. After every election—this is going to be a big one—people say there may be problems here or there. After every election, we can fine tune the system. Will the Legislature expand the absentee scenario here in Idaho, will they limit it, will they put sidebars on it?
Do you watch polls?
Oh yeah, I'm a political junkie and it's funny. One candidate does a poll and he's ahead, and the other candidate does a poll and that person's ahead. But conventional wisdom in Idaho, if you're a Democrat you better have like a 5 to 6 to 7 point lead—conventional wisdom—to make it even. There have been some good Democrat candidates in this state that went into Election Day with 4 or 5 point leads and lost, and that's just the way it is. Oh, the [Larry] Echohawk-[Phil] Batt race comes to mind. He was leading, was going to pull that out. And way back, the Church-Symms race ... but is this a different dynamic? Is this year different? Does the 18 to 24 come out? If they're ever going to come out, they're going to come out this year, so we've seen all the dynamics. It may be different this year.