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2021 election confirms the adage, ‘All politics is local’

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The argument that “all politics is local” has been repeated, many times, dating back to the 1930s; but a fixture of late 20th century politics, U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill is most closely associated with the phrase. Simply put, voters have greater sway in municipal elections.

“We know that more people are very engaged in politics right now,” said Dr. Jaclyn Kettler, professor at Boise State University. “That may carry over into higher turnout. So, I’ll be really interested to see what happens with turnout this fall.”

With only two weeks from Election Day 2021, and the beginning of early voting in Idaho, Kettler joined Morning Edition host George Prentice to survey the current political landscape, with particular focus on a big change to how the City of Boise will select members of city council.

“That may shift to a more neighborhood focus and ensure neighborhoods across the city are being represented.”
Dr. Jaclyn Kettler

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News.  Good morning. I'm George Prentice. Fresh from the political hangover from the 2020 election, Idaho is now preparing for what promises to be another important Election Day less than a month away. In fact, early voting begins in a number of communities this week. All the more reason for us to spend some time this morning with Dr. Jaclyn Kettler, professor at Boise State University, where her research and mentorship focuses on our political landscape. Dr. Kettler, good morning.

DR. JACLYN KETTLER: Good morning.

PRENTICE: Up top, let's talk about voter access - something the Idaho Legislature debated earlier this year. In fact, an effort to make statewide ballot measures a bit tougher was passed by the Legislature and signed into law. But since then, the Idaho Supreme Court had something to say about that.

KETTLER: That's correct. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a bill that would have raised the threshold of required signatures in order to qualify for the ballot from six percent of registered voters and 18 legislative districts to all thirty five legislative districts. And so that would make it much more challenging to qualify a measure to qualify for the ballot. But the Idaho Supreme Court in August struck it down, saying it was too restrictive

PRENTICE: And efforts which had been put on pause earlier this year quickly pressed the reset button. And my guess is we could see initiatives on the ballot, possibly next year.

KETTLER: So, when the Idaho Supreme Court struck that down the law went back to the previous 18 required in 18 legislative districts to meet that signature threshold. And so, Reclaim Idaho has restarted its efforts for an education funding initiative that would raise taxes on those making, I think, over $250,000 and in the corporate rate to try to increase K through 12 funding in the state.

PRENTICE: Well, here we are: it's an odd year and that means local elections. Let's talk a bit about a big change to local elections, in particular in the City of Boise, something the Idaho Legislature did affect change on.

KETTLER: The Legislature passed a bill requiring geographic districts for cities over a certain population, and so this will be Boise;s first election using those geographic districts, and it won't be all districts. Only half of the districts are going to be elected this fall, for two year terms, and then all of the council seats will be up in 2023 for election.

PRENTICE: And indeed, we know for a fact, change is coming. We know of at least one retirement from the council, so there is change right there. And quite frankly, the fact that one district in the city will skew more to the western portion of the city, and one argument has been that West Boise has been underrepresented at City Hall.

KETTLER: Having the citywide elections, you can have representatives all coming from similar neighborhoods, right? And that's been one critique: that particularly the North End has been overrepresented in City Council. So having these geographic districts, that may shift to a more neighborhood focus and ensure neighborhoods across the city are being represented and West Boise being one that is up this fall, which is T.J Thomson's district, and he's retiring from City Council.

PRENTICE: In 2020, Idaho saw a record number of ballots turned in. I think it was over 80 percent of registered voters participated in the election. But municipal elections wish they had that much participation. That said, we are reminded of the old Tip O'Neill quote, “All politics is local.”

KETTLER: It'll be really interesting to see what turnout looks like this fall because we're shifting to these geographic districts. Only half of the City of Boise will have their districts up for election. So, that'll shift a little bit. But we also know that more people are very engaged in politics right now. I think there’s a lot of interest and frustration. And so, you know, that may carry over into higher turnout again. So, I'll be really interested to see what happens with turnout this fall.

PRENTICE: One other event we have to take note of this year will undoubtedly impact next year's election and that will likely be the reconvening of the Idaho Legislature by the end of this year. We know that, among other things, they will consider the possible censure of Representative Priscilla Giddings, who has indicated she wants to run for statewide office. And that vote, particularly among Republicans, might be very telling and maybe even a bit of a barometer for next year's GOP primary.

KETTLER: We've seen some of these ideological divisions within the Republican Party come up at some different times, and I think how that vote or how that debate might play out can be telling in terms of, you know, do we see the far the right candidates or legislators band together?  I think that will be really interesting to see how that plays out.

PRENTICE: Goodness knows the amount of money that is poured into gubernatorial and certainly presidential elections. Do you see elections even at a municipal level seeing the cost of those elections going up?

KETTLER: That is something that we are seeing across the country. And I think especially, you have quite a few candidates that are active at the municipal level. You can see more money get involved. Often, this is where you may have interests like developers be especially involved in politics and things because at the local level, those decisions really impact some of those industries. So, we are seeing some increases generally. And I think that's one thing to look for: who's donating the money, who's spending money in these elections?

PRENTICE: And there has to be growing importance of candidate forums. My sense is that a fair amount of voters don't even flip the on switch until maybe a week or two before the election.  And so, they lean toward forums such as the City Club or League of Women voter forms. Those become even more important, I would guess, in local elections.

KETTLER: Those are key ways for voters to learn about the candidates' experiences and qualifications and issue positions and their issue priorities and what they would really like to do in office, as well as an opportunity to perhaps try to emphasize the importance of issues that are being overlooked. So, they are important dialogs for, not just learning about the candidates and making decisions, but also hopefully helping candidates learn about their communities.

PRENTICE: She is Dr. Jaclyn Kettler, professor of Boise State University. And as we make our way toward Election Day, she is someone who helps us navigate that political minefield. Dr. Kettler, have a good morning and a good rest of your week.

KETTLER: Thanks.  You as well.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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