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How Idaho was able to count votes so quickly and avoid a ‘nightmare’ like other states

Updated: Apr 6, 2021


Idaho was able to avoid the election week headaches experienced by other states for a couple of reasons, including our smaller population size and our requirement to have ballots received — not just postmarked — by Election Day.

But perhaps most important was the legislation passed by the Idaho Legislature during the special session in August. That legislation allowed county clerks in Idaho to start processing mailed-in ballots starting as early as a week before Election Day.

“As we watch the processes in other states, the special session and (the election legislation) have proven to be much more significant than we ever realized,” Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane wrote to me in an email. “It gave us the time necessary to prepare and process the fivefold increase in absentee ballots cast this year. It also gave us the breathing room to do so in a methodical, open and transparent way that didn’t take away from any of our Election Day efforts.”

Usually, when a few hundred or a few thousand ballots are absentee, it’s not a terrible burden, but when you’re talking about tens of thousands, it would have been virtually impossible to process them and count them all in one night.

Ada County had a total of 129,766 absentee ballots cast. That’s up from 25,094 in the 2016 election, according to McGrane.

It may seem like an insignificant thing, but simply processing mailed-in ballots is a tedious process. The signature on the outside of the return envelope must be checked and verified, the envelope must be opened, the ballot needs to be removed from the secrecy sleeve, then the ballot needs to be unfolded and flattened to be fed into a scanner that digitizes the paper ballot. Counting did not take place until Election Day, but doing the prep work ahead of time was instrumental in getting results so quickly, especially compared with other states.

“Had we not made these changes, I anticipate that Ada County would still (have been) counting ballots well into Friday (Nov. 6), as would other counties around the state,” according to McGrane. “When you consider having to wait days for results in local races like ACHD, District 15, or the commissioner races, it would have certainly contributed to some of the same uncertainty and distrust we’re hearing about nationally. Ensuring confidence in our elections processes is just as essential as providing everyone with the opportunity to vote.”

Canyon County Clerk Chris Yamamoto said his elections office began opening and scanning absentee ballots on the Tuesday prior to the Nov. 3 election.

“Without that option, it would have been the next morning before we had results,” Yamamoto wrote to me in an email. “Resolutions of improperly marked ballots took several hours alone.”

Canyon County had about 30,000 absentee ballots returned, according to Yamamoto, including ballots that were dropped off on Election Day, right up to 8 p.m.

As late as October, Republican legislators and the Democratic governor in Pennsylvania failed to come up with an agreement that would have allowed county clerks in that state to start processing ballots in advance of Election Day, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, which presciently noted that failure was “setting up a potential nightmare scenario that some fear could leave the state counting millions of ballots for days after Nov. 3.”

Without a change in state law, that meant county clerks in Pennsylvania had to wait until Election Day to process ballots.

Same thing in Wisconsin, Alabama and Mississippi, according to CNN. In Michigan, some large cities were allowed to begin processing their ballots on Nov. 2, but officials warned that they didn’t expect to have everything tallied until Nov. 6, CNN reported.

Idaho also differs from other states in that mail-in ballots must be received at each county clerk’s office by Election Day, as opposed to being postmarked by Election Day.

Last week, some states were allowing mailed ballots to be received and counted if they were postmarked by Election Day. In Idaho, ballots must be received by Election Day, not dropped in the mail. That meant that when polls closed, clerks could finalize their counts and not wait for more mailed ballots to show up at their offices.

Of course, Idaho has a relatively small number of votes to count. Even though Idaho broke a record by topping 1 million registered voters, that’s still a relatively small number compared with other states, such as the states that are in the news right now, including Nevada, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

For example, Clark County, in Nevada counted 877,000 ballots in that county alone. Michigan tallied more than 5.5 million ballots.

“As we all anxiously await the results of the election in other states, one of the things that I think is of note is what Idaho did to prepare for this,” Idaho Gov. Brad Little said during the Republican Party’s victory press conference last week. “We are teaching America how to count votes and count them on a timely basis.”

It’s a sentiment shared by McGrane.

“I’ve heard from several voters who feel proud about how we ran our elections here,” according to McGrane. “I’m grateful we had the foresight to pivot in a way that could elicit such strong feelings in our community.”

Scott McIntosh is the opinion editor of the Idaho Statesman. You can email him at or call him at 208-377-6202. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcIntosh12.

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