Seven more door knocks. Seven more phone calls. Seven more handshakes. In the days following the November 2010 election, Democrat Janie Ward-Engelking couldn't stop thinking about what could have secured seven more votes.
"A group of my son's friends told me, 'Oh, we didn't vote,'" she recalled, putting her hands up to her ears. "Don't tell me that. They said, 'We didn't think it would matter,' but I told them that it was a great civics lesson. And they said, 'Don't worry, we'll vote for you next time.' I didn't think there would be a next time."
On Election Night 2010, the initial vote count showed that Ward-Engelking had lost House Seat 18A to Republican Julie Ellsworth by nine votes in a race where more than 13,000 votes were cast. A recount in December 2010 confirmed that the margin was even closer--seven votes--but Ellsworth was still the winner.
"I'm sure Janie has the names of seven people who didn't vote," said Larry Grant, executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party. "She lost by seven, and Branden Durst lost by only 103 votes in 2010. I view District 18 this year as Democrats getting back two seats that we should have already had in the first place."
Durst launched a 2012 rematch against 2010 winner Republican Sen. Mitch Toryanski. Ward-Engelking will again face Ellsworth.
But the similarities end there. District 18 has changed in a big way, literally. After redistricting, District 18 now stretches nearly 15 miles to the east and 22 miles to the south, almost quadrupling in size to include approximately 45,000 citizens.
Redistricting commissioners were tasked with dividing Idaho's 1.5 million people into 35 approximately equal legislative districts. As a result, District 18 grew from an arrowhead-shaped district into a giant wedge tucked into eastern Ada County, butting up against Boise and Elmore counties.
District 18 still includes portions of Boise's North End, residents living south of Interstate 84 and Southeast Boise, but its new incarnation includes two new but widely different demographics: one that is very politically engaged and another that can't even vote.
"The key to the new District 18 is that it didn't stretch any further west," said Grant. "Instead, they went east to include Harris Ranch and it went south of Boise."
Grant pointed to a newly revised map of the district.
"There's the prison," he said.
As of July, the Idaho Department of Correction's complex of prisons was home to nearly 5,000 inmates, the majority of them men at the Idaho State Correctional Institution and Idaho Correctional Center.
"The prison is not inconsequential," said George Moses, one the chief architects of the newly drawn district. "Almost every state in the nation counts inmates at prison locations. That's where they spend the night and that's the standard of the United States Census."
Moses spent decades managing and assisting local, state and federal Democratic campaigns. He presently serves as political coordinator for Teamsters Local 483, covering Southwest Idaho. But in the Summer and early Fall of 2011, Moses served as an Idaho redistricting commissioner, along with two other Democrats and three Republicans, charged with crafting an equitable division of Idaho's population among its 35 districts. The six presented a plan that was initially turned down by the Idaho Supreme Court, but when a new commission was appointed in October 2011, much of Moses' handiwork involving District 18 remained.
"I had to arm wrestle them to get the prison into District 18," said Moses. "Make no mistake; there was a lot of back and forth. Republicans were trying to slide more Democrats over into District 19, which was already heavily Democratic. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see what they were trying to do."
But including nearly 5,000 occupants from the prison can't sway a vote in either direction. Simply put, they can't vote.
"We receive a report about once a month from the United States Department of Justice notifying us of felons," said Ilene Goff, election clerk with the Idaho Secretary of State's Office. "And we forward that information to the different county election boards."
Jo Spencer, supervisor at the Ada County Board of Elections, confirmed that her office reconciles the report by double-checking the Idaho Department of Correction website.
"The prisoners are canceled from the election logs," said Spencer. "They wouldn't appear in any poll book."
Moses said having 5,000 fewer voters in the district dials up the focus on everyone else.
"Republicans will tell you that District 18 used to be about 51 percent GOP," he said. "But our numbers tell me that it's really between 51 and 52 percent Democratic."
But Moses' next suggested change to District 18 was its most significant: including Harris Ranch.
"The Ada County Highway District spent millions of dollars to build Parkcenter Bridge to connect Harris Ranch to Southeast Boise," Moses wrote to his redistricting colleagues in the fall of 2011. "I feel very strongly that Harris Ranch should be connected to District 18."
Moses got his way.
"They're selling houses in Harris Ranch at the rate of one a day. I ask you, who's moving out there?"
Answering his own question, Moses said, "A lot of people from the North End. Let's just say that Democrats will get their share of those votes."
Harris Ranch's demographics are so new and growing so fast that statistics are hard to come by. But Ward-Engelking said she kept a close eye on how voters in the area turned out in March to support the Boise School District's $14 million, five-year supplemental levy.
"Seventy-six percent supported that levy. That's pretty huge," she said. "Education is a big, big issue with these voters."
Ward-Engelking said one of the biggest differences between her and her opponent is Ellsworth's "yes" votes for two of the three so-called "Luna Laws," the education reform package linked to Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna passed by the 2011 Idaho Legislature.
Ellsworth did not respond to Boise Weekly's repeated requests for an interview.
"A lot of people are telling me that ethics and the ultrasound bill are critical," said Ward-Engelking. "I'm hearing from a lot of women who said they always voted Republican before, but they were totally fed up by the ultrasound bill."
Ellsworth never voted on the so-called "ultrasound bill," officially known as Senate Bill 1387. The measure, which would have required all Idaho women considering abortion to undergo an ultrasound (with no exception for rape or incest), passed overwhelmingly by the Idaho Senate but never garnered a hearing or vote in the House.
The Mormon Factor
Ward-Engelking conceded that Ellsworth had at least two advantages over her: Ellsworth is an incumbent and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Julie's a Mormon, and with Mitt Romney at the top of the ticket, I think that will help her," said Ward-Engelking.
Grant acknowledged that Romney topping the GOP ballot is a factor that can't be ignored in Idaho.
"It's significant," said Grant. "And anybody who says otherwise is kidding themselves."
But Grant was quick to add that the opposite may be true.
"My mother is a perfect example. She's 89 years old and lives in Oregon," he said. "She looked at me the other day and asked, 'Larry, who should I vote for? The black guy or the Mormon?' Well, her family was a bunch of Arkansas Bible-thumpers."
Grant, Moses and Ward-Engelking all agreed that, ultimately, the biggest factor will be door-to-door, retail politics.
"I'm out there at least three hours a day, triple-digit temperatures, rain or shine, every day but Sunday. Last time, I met 8,000 people in person. We'll do more this year," said Ward-Engelking. "I didn't knock on any doors in the evening during the Olympics. I knew people wouldn't have appreciated that. But door-to-door works."
But it's not as if everyone she meets is a fan.
"One woman said, 'You're a Democrat? That's worse than Satan,'" she said with a big laugh.
But her voice softened when she was asked to assess her chances.
"My biggest fear is that I'll lose again," she said. "What's my optimism level? Pretty high. But I thought I was going to win last time. [District] 18 is still going to be a swing district. I'm going to outwork Julie. Will it make a difference? I don't know. I thought I had outworked her last time."