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Cities question county clerk’s decision to consolidate absentee voting

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Rather than absentee ballots being accepted at individual city halls in the county, all absentee ballots will be cast through the Kootenai County Elections Office in Coeur d'Alene.

COEUR d'ALENE - City halls might not be secure enough to house absentee ballot polling locations for November's election, the Kootenai County Clerk's Office decided.

It's too expensive to provide staff to work at the absentee polling sites too, the office said, so for the first time in decades, several Kootenai County municipalities won't have their city halls available for voters to cast an early ballot.

So anyone - from Rathdrum to Hayden - who wants to cast an absentee ballot early and in person will have to do so at the Kootenai County Elections Office, 1808 N. 3rd Street, in Coeur d'Alene.

It's the latest change Kootenai County Clerk Cliff Hayes has implemented since his election to office in 2010, having run his campaign on fixing the issues that arose in the heavily litigated 2009 Coeur d'Alene general election.

"The security of the ballots is paramount in the process of the elections," Hayes said this week. "The concept of not trusting anybody doesn't come in to play."

But unlike the previous changes, this one seems unwarranted for some cities, who've offered the service for 20-plus years.

Coeur d'Alene and Post Falls are two cities unhappy with the decision.

The financial and security reasons are flimsy, at best, they said, and they wonder if other reasons are driving it.

"That argument doesn't float here for us," said Eric Keck, Post Falls city administrator. "It makes you wonder if in fact that revenue they're receiving for the elections is going to the elections. It's kind of a curiosity for us."

The cost to staff the polling places is minimal for the access it provides for voters, both cities said, especially since the state gave counties money after the Legislature consolidated all elections to counties this year.

And the "ballot security" reason sounds like mistrust, Coeur d'Alene city officials said, especially on the heels of the 2009 Coeur d'Alene general election, which focused on legitimate vs. illegitimate ballots.

They didn't call it retribution from the outcome of the trial, which ended by upholding City Council Seat 2 incumbent Mike Kennedy's narrow victory over challenger Jim Brannon. But since the September 2010 court decision, bad blood between the sides has remained.

And the reasons for not polling city halls didn't add up, officials said.

"If his goal is to create a greater voter turnout," said Coeur d'Alene City Clerk Susan Weathers, of Hayes' decision. "He's making it more difficult."

2009 Revisited

Kootenai County Election's Supervisor Carrie Phillips, who made the decision with Hayes, said the controversy surrounding the 2009 general election was part of the reason for the decision.

"I would say we have learned things from the 2009 trial," she said. "We're just more cautious how we handle the ballots."

County poll workers would man the city hall cites, she said, and the decision was not out of mistrust for city halls, but more of the "public perception" that ballots could be "tampered with."

"I wasn't directing that at city personnel or anything like that," she said, saying it was the uncertainty of the different building security systems that was the issue, not people. "The ballots are my responsibility. Having them secured here is a better feeling for me."

City officials maintain their buildings are just as secure.

City halls, just like the elections office, are monitored by security cameras, and the ballots are sealed and held overnight under lock and key, they said.

"An objective person could absolutely say this is targeted against the city as a result of the election," said Kennedy, the victor of the 11-month case, although the five-vote difference was trimmed to three votes during the week-long trial. "But if it is an insult, who cares, the real question is, are we making it easier for people to cast ballots, or harder? It think it makes it harder."

The decision could negatively affect voter turnout, officials said.

In Coeur d'Alene, city hall is a popular spot for people who come by to pay bills or register for recreation leagues who end up voting too, even though they were unaware the polling site was there on the onset of their errand, Weathers said. The polling site has been offered there for at least 25 years, she said, and roughly one third of Coeur d'Alene voters vote absentee, whether in person or through the mail.

But Hayes said the decision was a non-issue that wouldn't affect voter turnout. Those voters can just as easily drive to the election's office on Third Street.

"Why would they need city hall, when they had tremendous controversy in the last city election?" Hayes said. "I'm trying to do it properly."

The change was a cost-cutting measure the county took after the Legislature consolidated elections this year, meaning counties are required to run all of them, which wasn't the case before.

Since the county is in charge, Hayes said he would either provide satellite sites at every single city hall, or none at all. Previously, Rathdrum, Hayden, Coeur d'Alene and Post Falls city halls were the satellite spots. Hayes said if city halls were to get the polling places, Huetter, Spirit Lake and all of the county's 13 cities would have to be included.

"It's all or nothing, he said. "I'm going to be fair to all of them."

Voters can always pick up absentee ballot request forms at city halls and vote early through the mail, which will still be available, he said.

"I cannot see the need to have those polling places," he said. "The amount of money it would cost is too expensive for the county to endure."

But Post Falls and Coeur d'Alene question the financial reason, too. To them the math didn't add up.

From where the money comes, and where it goes

Kootenai County was given $220,000 from the state after the consolidation was made. That money formula is based on off the top sales tax percentages, and population numbers, and will be given each year. Coeur d'Alene and Post Falls, the biggest cities, would therefore be the bigger driving forces creating most of that pot.

The four-person election department's proposed fiscal year 2012 budget, including that windfall, is $587,596.

The cost of running the March, May and November elections in Kootenai County should total around $339,000, the elections department said, while the cost to staff the four main city halls as absentee polling sites for two weeks prior to the election would be around $6,400.

When Coeur d'Alene contracted Kootenai County for the 2009 general election, the amount for having City Hall open for on site absentee voters was $742.50, according to a copy of the elections office bill to the city.

Keck said he had his own personal beliefs for the reasons for the change, but declined to share them.

"We're pretty disappointed," he said.

Cities were notified on the decision after an Aug. 9 meeting between the entities.

Weathers said she was told by elections staff in a side conversation at the end of the meeting that beside the financial and security reasons, having city elections inside city hall could also be a possible "conflict of interest."

Weathers reported those reasons to the Coeur d'Alene City Council during its meeting Tuesday.

Hayes said conflict of interest was never a reason. Weathers reaffirmed this week those were the reasons given to her, but didn't want to get in a 'he said, she said' about it.

"I do not see that as a conflict when you have county workers there," Hayes said. He said he didn't know why Weathers would report conflict as a reason, and didn't want to speculate.

The trial, the campaign, the changes

Hayes' 2010 campaign focused largely on addressing issues that came up during the highly polarized, highly passionate city election challenge.

The case charged that inadmissible ballots had been cast in the election.

The trial, once it got there after nearly a year of court hearings and filings, focused on registration cards, federal and state absentee voting laws, illegal votes cast by people who lived outside city limits and the actual number of absentee ballots counted.

The court case though, just as the campaign trail had been, was underlined with conspiratorial undertones, which the judge often dismissed from his bench.

One affidavit filed by a Brannon supporter included copies of "ballot irregularities" and showed absentee ballots and envelopes with random writings on them, such as spouses writing permission notes on the envelopes for the other spouse to drop off the sealed ballot.

The affidavit, however, was not brought up during the week-long trial, and the judge's ruling at the end said the trial raised complex issues on a complex operation, but the 2009 general election was well run.

Yet, after the decision, the sides have remained divided.

Political activist and election challenge supporter Mary Souza, who endorsed Hayes in a October 2010 newsletter, said the decision wasn't a surprise, given that the challengers were "pushing against a highly entrenched bastion of the local status quo."

"The way things 'have always been done' was defended," she wrote.

Since taking office, Hayes has sent several press releases informing the public of the steps he has taken in light of the election challenge, such as reviewing voter registrations based on locations and personally counting narrowly-decided highway district races to ensure the machines counted accurately.

The 2009 general election also had partisan undertones in the non-partisan race. Kennedy is a Democrat and Brannon a Republican.

Hayes' Republican campaign had been endorsed and supported financially by several community members who were involved in the challenge and publicly against how the city of Coeur d'Alene handled its election.

The Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, of which Brannon was a member at the time of the trial, donated to both Hayes' campaign and $2,500 to the election challenge.

Rathdrum and Hayden officials, meanwhile, said this week they were disappointed with the county clerk's decision. They also said they were told it was for financial reasons, and security reasons weren't brought up.

"We hadn't heard about that," said Melissa Taylor, Rathdrum clerk/treasurer, on the security reason, adding she was sad to see the service go.

"That's not to say there weren't any (security concerns)," said Stefan Chatwin, Hayden city administrator. "It's just certainly not something they've discussed with us."

But Hayes said looking for deeper meaning, other than financing and consolidation, for the decision is off line.

He said he's not affecting turnout, not picking on any one city, but treating everyone fairly.

It's the first year the elections have consolidated, so all decisions in the inaugural season should be made with caution and the county works through the trial process.

"I don't even know why it's being brought up," he said.

Boise, for example, no longer uses its city hall for absentee voting, as it had in the past, for practical reasons since the counties took over running them, city officials there said.

That's the way Kootenai County is heading, too.

And should cities in Kootenai County without polling places - every city except Coeur d'Alene - want their city halls set up as satellite sites because it's too big a burden without it, Hayes said he's open to the discussion.

"I think I'm going to say no," he said. "But I'll still listen before I'm going to decide."

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