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History In The Making: What And When To Expect From Idaho Primary Results

Molly Wampler
Boise State Public Radio

Idaho's2020 Primary Election was already critical — all 125 seats in the legislature, both of Idaho seats in the U.S. House, a U.S. Senate seat and scores of county races and school bond/levies are on the ballot. But when the pandemic forced the primary to be an all-absentee election, it triggered an unprecedented number of ballot requests; and now the Gem State is poised to see the highest percentage of voter participation in a primary election in decades.

Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane, who oversees Idaho's largest election operation, visits with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about what voters might expect when results are revealed on June 2, the extraordinary steps to prevent fraud and protect integrity, and the ever-evolving plans for the November general election.

“We have a team of people doing the signature checks. They've all been trained by law enforcement in reviewing signatures.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: On a Monday, it's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning, I'm George Prentice. Tomorrow, Tuesday, June 2nd is not Primary Day, but tomorrow is when we learn the results of Idaho's statewide primary. Everything has changed due to the pandemic, including the primary election. And to talk more about that this morning is the man who oversees Idaho's biggest election operations. He is Phil McGrane, Ada County Clerk, and he joins us live via Zoom this morning. Phil, good morning.

PHIL McGRANE: Good morning, George. It's great to be with you.

PRENTICE: Upfront, I think we should talk deadlines. Can you remind us of some important deadlines regarding the ballots?

McGRANE: The key deadline right now is tomorrow at 8:00 PM. Tuesday evening is the deadline to return your absentee ballot. So anyone who is going to get an absentee ballot, we've already received their request and we've already mailed out the ballot, but we have to have them in our possession. So don't drop them in the mail. The postmark doesn't count. We actually have to physically have them. We have a drop box available at our Ada County elections headquarters, as well as other locations like the Ada County courthouse. But we want voters to know that they need to get those ballots to us by tomorrow evening.

PRENTICE: Can you paint us a word picture of the process as far as preventing fraud and protecting integrity? And when they get a ballot, does it start with some verification of the signature on the envelope?

McGRANE: Yeah, so the process, we have a giant warehouse where we're conducting all of this from, and what's been unique for us is while most of the state has been slowing down as a result of COVID-19, we've actually been ramping up in order to conduct this very unique all-mail election. Prior to May 19th, there was a huge surge of working hard to get ballots out to voters. That's obviously passed. We're now in that phase, what you're asking about, George, where we're receiving all the ballots in. Your listeners can kind of imagine, we get giant carts of mail every day.

So the first phase we go through is we time and date stamp every single envelope so that we could show when we received a voter's ballot. And then we begin the process of receiving those ballots into the statewide voter registration system. That's crucial in terms of reconciling the ballot that came back against the ballots that we mailed out.

So we want to make sure that ballot came back is for somebody that we mailed a ballot to. As you already referenced, that's one of the key phases where we are verifying that the person returning it is the person that was supposed to be voting it. So if voters picture their absentee envelopes that they had, there's a signature block on the back of the envelope with an affidavit saying they followed the instructions and are complying with the law, and they sign that envelope. Well, when we use our barcode scanners to receive those in, immediately on our computer screen, pops up the image from that voter's registration card. We've digitized all registration cards, and so we can see the signature on the registration card and do a comparison to make sure the person who signed the envelope is the person who has registered to vote. And then we go through that-

PRENTICE: Can I interrupt you there?

McGRANE: Oh please.

PRENTICE: Does it spit out exceptions then for you to do that manually?

McGRANE: That's a great question, George. This is all being done manually. This isn't a signature comparison by the computer. This is a person reviewing every single signature.

PRENTICE: My goodness.

McGRANE: My goodness is right. That's what it feels like when we've had probably just close to 70,000 that we've reviewed so far. So we have a team of people doing the signature checks. They've all been trained by law enforcement in reviewing signatures. Overwhelmingly, the vast majority of signatures match. And you can tell the slants of the signature, the loops, the angle, all these other things, we can tell that it matches. But there are signatures that questions arise, so we have multiple people review those. Every election there's some signatures that are set aside because they don't match. More common than not matching is actually people forget to sign their envelope.

Either way, we actually try to reach out to those voters and contact them, because if I get a ballot and it says George Prentice, and it doesn't match your signature, I want to reach out to you to say, "George, is this your signature? Did it change?" And you could say, "Oh yeah, that was me." Right? So we can validate the vote. Or you can say to us like, "No, I didn't return my ballot." And that opens up us to look into potential fraud and to work with law enforcement to pursue anything like that, to maintain the security of the vote.

PRENTICE: But your next step then has to maintain the privacy of that ballot and segregate that ballot from my signature… right?

McGRANE: Yeah. That's one of those unique... So first phase is verifying it is you. And then, last week we spent a number of days just opening all of these envelopes. This is a ton of mail. We have machines that help us slice open the envelopes, which most people can probably imagine. But you still have the physical process of removing the contents out of those envelopes. And it's a two phase process.

Again, if your listeners picture their ballot, there was a secrecy sleeve that they put their ballot into prior to putting it into that return envelope. So first we go through and we remove all the secrecy sleeves from the exterior envelopes. That way we can't see the contents on how someone voted on the ballot while we're removing that exterior envelope that has the name. We go through that and then we circle back around and then we remove the ballot from the secrecy sleeve. This ensures the anonymity of the votes. If I see a name that I recognize, I can't see how that person voted. We want to anonymize all of those ballots in that second phase, so that as we're counting, everyone's secret vote is guaranteed.

PRENTICE: Can you give us a sense of what will happen today and tomorrow? I have to assume you can begin counting these ballots. Yes?

McGRANE: Yeah. So last week we spent most of our time just opening and preparing the ballots. One of the unique things about an all-mail election is we needed to actually open them and unfold the ballots so that we can get them as flat as possible, making it easier on the equipment to read them. This morning what we're doing is we're beginning the counting process.

So we start by running a test to make sure that the machines are operating properly. We also demonstrate to the public that there's no votes having been tallied at this point. Everything's zeroed out and we're starting from a clean, fresh state. And throughout today we'll be counting ballots all day long.

Today, we're making a specific, heavy push in terms of counting as many as we can to provide us some space tomorrow. We know we will still be counting ballots all through June 2nd as well, but we also know we'll be receiving all those last minute ballots coming in. And so, on Tuesday, it'll be a combination of opening, receiving ballots, as well as counting them, in an effort to get the results out Tuesday evening.

PRENTICE: Can I assume that you'll have a fair amount of the results ready when you're able to share them with us at 9:00 PM Mountain time?

McGRANE: Yeah. In a lot of ways, tomorrow night will feel like a typical election night. We will be releasing the very first results, which is typically the absentees. Again, this is an all-mail election, so I anticipate at least 80% of the results will come out in that first release.

PRENTICE: And again, 9:00 PM Mountain time, because you must wait for northern Idaho to complete.

McGRANE: That's correct. We can't release or even view any results until all of the ballots have been received for this election. We don't want to influence how people vote. And so, we'll be waiting for northern Idaho to wrap up and get all their ballots and then have that first release. And this will be a unique election because we'll actually know some outcomes pretty early on if there's a large gap in terms of the results. Normally, it's a small indicator of how the evening's going to go. But this time, the bulk of the ballots will have already been counted at that point.

PRENTICE:  I've got about a minute left, Phil. Can I assume that you already are looking at several scenarios regarding November?

McGRANE: Yeah. This has been such a unique year in terms of elections. We are looking at November. I anticipate we will probably have some presence of polling locations in November. There's a lot of indication by the legislature and the community to have that, but it may still look different than what we've voted in the past. I do know, just as a start that we've had about 75,000 voters already marked on their absentee requests that they would like to have their ballot mailed to them in November. So we know we will have another very large mail election come November. And it'll just be interesting to see where we are and the state of the world and how many voters would prefer to have it mailed to them, versus how many voters want to go back to the tradition of voting at their polling location.

PRENTICE: He is Ada County Clerk, Phil McGrane. Phil, to you and your colleagues, best of luck tomorrow.

McGRANE: Thank you. We can use all the support. And this has been quite an endeavor and we're looking forward to these results, just like everybody else.


Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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