Idaho Primary: Poll Workers Prepare To Help Voters With New Primary Rules

May 10, 2012

Now that the Idaho Republican Party has opted for a closed primary, voters will encounter some big changes at the polling booth.  Elections officials are trying to explain the new format to the public, and prepare workers for questions on voting day.  Lots of questions. 

Helen Robins is gearing up for Election Day.  She’s petite, energetic, and she laughs a lot.  She’s been a poll worker and a Chief Judge, that’s the person in charge at a precinct.  “I think I’ve seen it all…”

This year she’s a District Judge, overseeing ten precincts in Ada County.  She jokes around with Phil McGrane, the Chief Deputy for the Ada County Clerk.  “Helen has been doing this one or two years, I don’t know, what were you saying, how many years have you been…a little over 40…”

Robins says elections are a lot different today from when she started working at the polls.  “It has changed in the years that I’ve been doing it, it has changed drastically, so yeah, definitely.”

This year brings several new changes for Robins and for voters.  The biggest is the Republican Party’s switch to a closed primary.  Democrats left theirs open.  That means voters will have to make two choices. “They need to make a party affiliation and chose their ballot accordingly to that party affiliation,” says Robins. 

She makes it sound simple.  But Ada County Election Specialist Shannon Hohl says it won’t be. “Everything has changed, and voters are going to be confused.”

Hohl’s job is to coordinate the hundreds of poll workers in Ada County.  Today she’s training and swearing in a group of Chief Judges, including Helen Robins.  Hohl tells her trainees, party affiliation is the first hurdle for voters.  “So, a voter can choose to be Republican, Constitution, Democrat, Libertarian, or unaffiliated.”

Hohl says many voters will think there’s one affiliation missing from the list.  “Well, I’m an Independent, I vote Independent, I wanna vote Independent.”

Chief Deputy Phil McGrane agrees.  “Idaho is a very independent state.”

He points to a 2011 Public Policy Survey by Boise State, in which 37 percent of people labeled themselves as Independent.  That’s more than the 33 percent of Republicans or 21 percent who said they were Democrats.  Hohl says all those self-identified Independents will have to choose a party. “There is no recognized political party in Idaho called Independent.”

So no matter how independent they feel, those voters can’t actual register as Independent.  But in order to vote, they have to register as something.  This is where it gets confusing.  Once they’ve picked a party, they have to choose one of three ballots.  But not everyone can pick every ballot, as Hohl tells her trainees.  “If they are Republican, they may chose the Republican ballot or they may chose the Democrat ballot or they may chose the non-partisan ballot.  If they’re anything else, they may choose either Democrat or non-partisan.”

Adding to the confusion, are Ada County’s 145 precincts.  There are three ballots for each precinct, plus a few extra for special elections.  That adds up to more than 435 ballots the Clerk’s Office has to print and keep track of.  McGrane, the Chief Deputy, admits it won’t be easy. “This is the most complicated election we’ve ever run.”

As a result, poll workers are getting lots of training on the new rules.  And McGrane has added one extra person to all polling locations. “That’s in order to provide a person to help with the line, in terms of educating the people as they’re waiting in line.  It’s pretty much guaranteed that there will be some lines this year, largely just cause of the increased transaction time.”

That’s where Helen Robins comes in.  Her job on Election Day will be to educate voters, and minimize confusion.   She thinks a lot of voters won’t like the changes.  “Well, there’ll be some people who will be unhappy, there always are and you know we can’t help that, we just do what we can do and hopefully we can satisfy them.”

Robins plans to just listen and let them vent.  After 40 years working elections, she’s ready for anything.  “I’ve seen a lot of things and nothing surprises me.  At my age and my experience, you just deal with it.”

To help people better understand the changed primary system, Ada County is sending every registered voter an oversized postcard with information on party affiliation.  Phil McGrane is asking voters to look for their postcards, and to be ready when they walk into the polls Tuesday.


Copyright 2012 Boise State Public Radio