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Idaho Legislature now considering changing local elections to state election years

Local elections in the City of Boise and Meridian could soon happen in even years alongside Presidential and state level elections.

On Friday, Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R- Eagle, asked for amendments to a bill establishing a process for cities over 100,000 in population to be elected by district instead of at large. Her changes to SB 1111 would shift municipal elections onto even years starting in 2024. The changes passed and the legislation will be voted on by the Senate next week.

Currently only Boise and Meridian have more than 100,000 residents. Nampa officially sits just below the threshold, but continued growth could add it to the list soon.

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DeMordaunt said this change will address low-turnout common in municipal elections by placing it on years with higher turnout than the roughly 20% common in many municipal elections. After some questions on the floor, DeMordaunt said she worked with bill sponsor Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, and former Boise City Council Candidate Karen Danley, who advocated for the change to districts, to draft the change.

More partisanship?

Democrats were not as thrilled with the idea. House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said more turnout doesn’t necessarily mean voters will be more engaged in local issues and it would likely inject a lot more party politics into non-partisan elections.

“I recognize that the good lady sponsoring this has a wonderful intention here to increase turnout and participation, but I think the upshot is the opposite,” she said. “I think we’re going to see vastly less attention to those voting on the city races. Sure, we’ll have a zillion people turning out, but I don’t think a whole lot of them aren’t going to have been following anything in the city elections.”

SB 1111 is a response to legislation passed in 2020 from Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, to require cities over 100,000 be elected by district. The bill passed, but it left questions of how the lines would be drawn and what would happen to sitting council members.

There is also the problem of updated population data from the U.S. Census Bureau from 2020 not being available in time to draw lines for a 2021 November election. Winder’s bill and DeMordaunt’s changes would solve these issues by allowing candidates to run at large this year, but for shorter terms before transitioning into staggered districted elections.

Contradictory language

This amendment incorporates HB 319 proposed by DeMordaunt this session, which would move all local elections to even-numbered years across the state, with SB 1111.

Under the amendment language she proposed to SB 1111, cities over 100,000 will follow a multi-year process to transition to the new years. In those cities:

  • Candidates will run at large for two-year terms in 2021, and then all candidates will run under the districts in 2023.
  • Half the candidates will run for one-year terms and the other half will run for three-year terms to get the city on an even-year election cycle.
  • Sitting council members will serve the rest of their terms.

Cities under 100,000 will transition to even year elections using a different process. They are allowed to be split into districts if the city chooses, but are not required to.

  • Candidates in smaller cities will run in 2021 and 2023 for three-year terms
  • Then, candidates running in 2024 and beyond will serve either two or four-year terms “under applicable law.”

Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, raised concerns on the floor about how the legislation would impact ballot initiatives and recall campaigns in cities. He argued moving the municipal elections to higher turnout years would mean the number of signatures required for both actions would be so high it would effectively eliminate the process.

Gannon was supportive of the 2019 ballot initiatives in the City of Boise to put questions on the ballot if voters should be able to vote on a new main library and publicly-funded sports park. A recall campaign against Mayor Lauren McLean and City Council Member Lisa Sanchez failed in 2020 because it could not gather enough signatures.

“Really there’s not going to be any more democracy in local government,” Gannon said during debate on the amendment.

City of Boise’s Government Affairs Director Kathy Griesmeyer said the city was concerned about the move to even-numbered years because it will inject more partisan politics into local government races. She said the amendment was a surprise to city staff and she was not able to review the change until it was on the floor being voted on.

“Voter turnout is different than voter engagement and our concern was you’re creating even longer ballots where municipal races will be buried under the president, state legislative races, county races and then city races,” she said. “Are folks going to have the time and attention to sort through all of the other races that are happening on the ballot to fully process what’s at stake on a municipal ballot?”

Correction: This story has been changed to reflect that the amendment referenced different processes for cities above and below the 100,000 threshold. It was incorrect in the previous version. It was also corrected to clarify cities under 100,000 will not be required to be split into districts and shorter terms will be used to transition to even-year election cycles.

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev senior reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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