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A single Republican state senator who rejects former President Donald Trump’s false accusations of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election has blocked a slew of proposed restrictions on voting rights in Idaho. Her retirement this fall and the state Republican Party’s sharp turn toward Trump’s right-wing conspiracy theory talking points have advocates bracing for what might come ahead of 2024.

“We’re pretty much screwed,” said Betsy McBride, president of the League of Women Voters of Idaho.

Her organization fought a proposal that would have made it a crime to “knowingly collect or convey another voter’s voted or unvoted ballot.”

It would have criminalized people who turn an absentee ballot in for their elderly neighbor, or have volunteered with a local League of Women Voters chapter to facilitate voting at nursing homes.

“It was a felony with a big fine,” McBride said. “So it was clear that a lot of the work that the churches were doing, and other groups, was just going to come to a halt. We have a huge veterans home. And whether or not they have a living spouse is quite problematic.”

The bill, along with other voting restrictions, including bans on drop boxes and the use of student IDs at the polls, passed the Idaho House but died in the state Senate.

There, a single longtime Republican senator, State Affairs Committee Chairwoman Pattie Lodge, refused to even give them a hearing. She has bluntly rejected proposed policy changes in Idaho that have been based on false conspiracy theories, clashing with some of the most ardent Trump supporters in her party.

About this series

This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

The Idaho Senate also killed legislation approved by the House that would have banned treatment of trans youth and allowed criminal charges against librarians if a minor checked out “objectionable material.” Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, a Republican who has also clashed with the Trump wing of the party, called the latter measure, House Bill 666, “very appropriately numbered.”

“It got so weird that the normal conservative Republicans couldn’t stand it anymore,” McBride said. “How that split plays out in the next session, we just don’t know.”

Lodge, for example, chose not to seek re-election. McBride and other advocates are bracing for a flood of voting restrictions to be reintroduced ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

“It’s a good demonstration of one thoughtful person who was persuaded by rational discussion,” McBride said. “There’s tension in the majority party between the thoughtful ranchers who just don’t like government regulation that much and the serious bomb throwers.”

Felony disenfranchisement

People convicted of a felony in Idaho are stripped of their right to vote until completion of any relevant prison sentence, probation and/or parole. That affected more than 32,000 voters in the state in 2020, or nearly 3% of the voting age population.

The disenfranchisement rate for Black residents because of this policy is just over 9%.

Options beyond Election Day

From felony disenfranchisement to challenges faced by voters in far-flung rural areas and limited non-English language assistance at polling places, Idaho has inequities in voting access.

Yet among heavily Republican states, Idaho is more progressive when it comes to voting access and representation.

A bipartisan commission handles legislative and congressional redistricting and has avoided the racial gerrymandering being challenged in other states.

Absentee voting is open to anyone, no excuse needed. And new voters can register up to and on Election Day. 

According to Elinor Chehey, who has volunteered with the Idaho League of Women Voters for more than 50 years, “everybody in Idaho knows” why these policies are needed and it hasn’t been a particularly Republican vs. Democrat argument. 

The state is largely rural, and it can take some people an hour or more to drive to a town office to register to vote or cast a ballot. And drop boxes are essential due to the condition of mail delivery in the state. “It can take a week for a letter to get from eastern Idaho to another part of the state, even a neighboring city,” she said.

McBride said this consensus in Idaho started to change after the 2020 presidential election, when Trump spread false conspiracy theories about voter fraud and claimed the election had been stolen from him.

That gave cover, she said, for copycat state legislation to be advanced by national special interest groups. 

“Right now we have very accessible elections. Why the Republicans would want to change that is only understandable in that that’s what Republicans are doing in other states. … Nothing else makes sense. And it has just hit since 2020,” McBride said. “This list of bills all over the country look pretty much the same, the talking points are the same.”

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Matt DeRienzo is editor-in-chief of the Center for Public Integrity. Previously, he was vice president...