Why do Idaho counties conduct off-year municipal elections?

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On Nov. 5, the city of Boise will hold general elections for mayor and three city council seats. The mayoral election occurs every four years, while city council elections take place every two years. Despite the even amount of years per term, municipal elections in Idaho are conducted on odd-numbered years to avoid conflicting local elections with federal and state elections.

“Off-year” elections have often been touted as an inefficient use of time and public funds, yet the practice is still common in many places across the United States, including some of the most populated cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston. 

Boise has always conducted this municipal election on odd years since the establishment of its mayoral position in 1866. However, some believe that Ada County and the city of Boise could financially benefit from transitioning into even year local elections.

A case study conducted by The Greenlining Institute, a public policy, research and advocacy non-profit organization, suggests cities that conduct off-cycle elections spend anywhere from five to 31 times the amount of money per vote than cities who utilize even-year voting in accordance with state elections. 

Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck explained there are other variables to consider when looking at the true costs and benefits of these election procedures. 

A singular election, with all of the related local taxing districts, would create so many ballot faces it would make it extremely difficult for volunteer poll workers to ensure accuracy in getting the right ballot to the right person,” Houck wrote in an email. 

Because of the overlapping layout of Ada County precincts, ballots vary between each citizen depending on the location of their residence. 

“For a primary, we have had up to 750 unique ballot styles in Ada County,” said Ada County clerk Phil McGrane. “If we were to combine municipal elections, that number would continue to go up.”

According to McGrane, ballots make up a majority of the city’s budget for an election.

“I’m going to guess it’ll be about $300,000 or $400,000 to conduct the [upcoming city]election,” McGrane said. 

However, the upfront price doesn’t always provide the full picture. McGrane explained that problems during the election may cause unexpected costs later on. A ballot mistake in a previous Ada County election lead to a redo that ended up costing the county nearly $180,000, according to McGrane.

McGrane believes that if Ada County were to conduct even-year elections in accordance with federal and state elections, it would only create a higher probability for mistakes. 

“The integrity of the process starts to erode,” McGrane said. “It gets more costly, as well as complicated and more risky in terms of error.”

McGrane says there is also the issue of ballot fatigue. When local and federal elections are combined, this usually results in pages and pages of ballot questions. In turn, this creates a higher risk for voter “roll-off,” a phenomena that occurs when voters lose interest and fail to complete their entire ballot. 

“People care about the President, but then [we]end up with all of these blank pages,” McGrane said. 

In addition to ballot roll-off, Charles Hunt, assistant professor of political science at Boise State, believes that voter interest and information plays a very important role as well.

“Voters tend to have much more information and interest in higher profile races, particularly federal races and particularly the presidential race,” Hunt said.

Hunt explains that the attention garnered from bigger races could create the opportunity for endorsements and joint appearances between local candidates and national figures. This would give the public the chance to better understand their municipal electorates 

Federal joint elections reach a broader audience, whereas municipal elections tend to appeal primarily to one demographic. 

“Voters turning out just for these [municipal]elections tend to be whiter, more affluent, older voters,” Hunt said. “Because this information isn’t as [prevalent]in the media, you get lower turnout, but the voters tend to skew that way demographically. So that becomes a concern in terms of representation.”

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