An integral process

Three former North Idaho lawmakers weigh in on the integrity of the election process and how we can communicate better with one another

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

As ballots were still being counted across the country in the tight presidential race that has widely been projected as a win for former-Vice President Joe Biden, Idaho had already made quick work of its ballot counting process, with most counties reporting results by the end of Election Day or early the next morning. Gov. Brad Little said at a press conference Nov. 4 that Idaho was “teaching America how to count votes, and to count votes on a timely basis.”

As President Donald Trump ramps up his legal efforts — based on little to no evidence to date — he has publicly cast doubt and sowed distrust in the election process, calling it a “fraud” and an “unfair process,” among other labels — again, without producing any substantial evidence.

The Reader thought it would be beneficial to speak with three former lawmakers who have represented North Idaho to ask their opinion on the integrity of the elections in the United States, and how we might be able to compromise more and divide less.

Kermit Kiebert, Democrat  • former District 1 Idaho Senator (1975-1987)

Kermit Kiebert.

Kermit Kiebert looks back on his 12 years serving as District 1 state senator as a time of action and fairness between political factions in the state. He also never gave the integrity of Idaho’s election process a second thought.

“We didn’t even think about the elections being crooked or corrupt, or whatever they’re trying to call it,” Kiebert told the Reader. “It never once crossed my mind.”

According to Kiebert (who, with full disclosure, is grandfather of Reader News Editor Lyndsie Kiebert) said that even during close elections — like when former Democratic House Rep. Jim Stoicheff and his Republican opponent Pete Wilson ended up at a dead tie during their race in the 1980s, and which Stoicheff won in a coin flip — the voters always accepted the results and moved forward in the state’s best interest.

“Of course, back then we weren’t nearly as partisan as they are now,” Kiebert said. “The parties are almost tribal now.”

Kiebert said there were some bright spots in the current Legislature, including current District 1 Sen. Jim Woodward, a Republican.

“Jim Woodward is a darn good legislator,” Kiebert said. “He’s very tempered in his views, he doesn’t put party before the state and he votes the way he thinks it should be. That’s what happened when I was there. You don a party hat to get elected, but you take it off when you get to Boise and put on your parochial hat. It’s like Biden said last week, you’re not representing a particular party, but the people — particularly those people in your area that have special needs.”

Kiebert pointed to his long relationship with Idaho Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Risch.

“We were very close friends,” Kiebert said. “Still are. When Jim and I were there [in the Statehouse], we talked all the time; helped each other out when necessary. … That’s not the way it is now.”

Kiebert pointed to the so-called “Hastert Rule,” named for former, disgraced, U.S. Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert as one source of gridlock in Idaho politics. The unwritten “rule” states that the speaker of the House will only bring a bill to the floor “if the majority of the majority” supports it.

“When you have a state where all the chairmen are Republicans, it’s a very poor way to function because any idea that the minority had didn’t get to the floor,” Kiebert said. “When I was there, we were close enough that nobody had the big long stick to work the other guy over with. We were a little more down to earth than that, but now the Idaho Legislature, under such a dominating party that is showing splits now, too — there are the ones out in the dingweeds like Heather Scott and that bunch, that just makes it more difficult because they’re ideologues who aren’t really much interested in anything else except the Second Amendment and right to life.”

When asked what impact he thinks Trump’s repeated attacks on the integrity of the election process, Kiebert said, “It’s not healthy, I’ll just say that. … To raise doubt, I don’t know what good purpose it would serve. Many secretaries of state are Republicans, so he’s flaying his own party with these allegations.”

Ultimately, Kiebert said the election process is how Americans regulate and moderate the factions they feel are detrimental to progress.

“You heal up, bind your wounds and go ahead,” he said. “The next presidential election, you give another whack at it. … I think we couldn’t have a better person than Joe Biden right now. I’ve met him before. He’s got more empathy and was always known as a bipartisan person, so I think very early on you’ll see him coming down the center to try for compromise.”

George Eskridge, Republican • District 1 Idaho Representative, seat B (2000-2014)

After the District 1 Idaho House Seat B was held for a long time by Democrat Jim Stoicheff, George Eskridge flipped the position to the Republican Party in 2000, where it has remained to this day, with Sage Dixon currently serving in the District 1 Seat B.

Throughout his 14 years serving District 1 in the Idaho House, Eskridge said he’s always had confidence in Idaho’s ability to count the votes.

“I was confident it was handled good, especially in this county,” Eskridge told the Reader. “I even kidded to pollsters down in Dover about me coming in and voting twice and they pretty well convinced me not only would they hit me on the head, but there was no way I could do it twice.”

Eskridge said that while he remains confident that the election process in Idaho is “secure,” he does see mail-in voting as a potential area that needs to be addressed to avoid any possible cases of fraud in the future.

“I’m not that confident that mail-in balloting is really a good way to be doing this,” he said. “I’m not convinced anymore that it can’t be abused. … I think we’ve got to be more accountable in how we get ballots out to people.”

Eskridge said Idaho requiring voters to send in a request to obtain a mail-in ballot should be followed nationwide to avoid any voting irregularities.

“In Bonner County, and the state as a whole, when you have to send in a request to get a ballot and it’s sent to your address, and you fill it out and sign it, put it in the mail, that’s been a pretty secure way up until now,” Eskridge said. “You’ve got some accountability. … The only concern I have is that anybody can fill out that ballot, not necessarily the person it was sent to.”

Point of fact: Mail-in ballots must match signatures to ones on file, the same as in-person ballots.

Eskridge acknowledged that Trump’s attacks on the election process leads to more uncertainty and more people questioning the integrity of a secure process.

“I don’t think those remarks instill confidence in the process,” he said. “We need to tighten this process up, yes, to instill more confidence in the voting public, that all mail-in ballots are secure and treated accordingly, but … I think our process in Idaho is pretty secure.”

Regarding the fractured nature of Idaho politics, Eskridge echoed Kiebert’s statements about finding common ground with the opposing party for the good of the state.

“When I was in the Legislature, we could work across the aisle,” he said. “I had Democrat compatriots I could work with. We could agree not to agree, but we got things done. I don’t like the division we have in the Republican Party now. There’s one really extreme faction and the other more inclined to work problems out.”

Eskridge said the ability for the Legislature to work as a bipartisan body is important to get back on track.

“I think [Republican] Gov. [Phil] Batt was correct when he made the statement a long time ago that we need more Democrats in the Legislature,” Eskridge said. “We’re getting to the point where maybe that’s becoming an issue. We’re getting pretty extreme on the right — even in our local Republican Central Committee there’s division. … We have to focus on what’s best for our state, our district and our people. When Shawn [Keough] and I were there, we got things done. We got the Byway done, the Dover bridge, guardrails by Trestle Creek, the Lakes Commission was formed. They were for the good of the district and the state. Now we have people who don’t want to do anything except create controversy.”

Shawn Keough, Republican  • District 1 Idaho Senator (1996-2018)

Shawn Keough. Photo by Marie-Dominique Verdier.

In more than two decades of representing District 1 in the Idaho Senate, Shawn Keough knows what it’s like to represent a district with integrity and respect for all sides of an issue. Known as a “nuts-and-bolts” type legislator, Keough’s tenure in office was characterized by her ability to focus on passing legislation that was important for North Idahoans and communicating well with constituents across her district. She currently serves on the Idaho State Board of Education.

After Keough retired from the Legislature in 2018, voters sent Republican Sen. Jim Woodward the Statehouse in her place. Woodward was again elected on Nov. 3, and though Keough left some big shoes to fill, he has already earned a reputation as a thoughtful legislator who has followed Keough’s legacy to serve the entire district with respect and civility.

During her many election cycles, Keough told the Reader that she never doubted the integrity of the election process in Idaho.

“I always trusted that our county elections officials were doing everything by the book, so to speak, and that they had good staff that were trying their hardest,” Keough said. “I think for Idaho, and for me personally in Legislative District 1 in Bonner and Boundary Counties, you know the elections officers, probably know most of the staff, the volunteers working the polls, the poll watchers, the party folks that are volunteering to be there to watch the counting process. There’s a familiarity with the folks behind the scenes that lends to that comfort level.”

Keough, like Kiebert and Eskridge, expressed dismay that Trump’s public statements casting doubt on the integrity of our electoral process are not helpful for moving forward.

“I think that it undermines our form of government and the foundation of our country,” she said. “It’s my hope that if he knows of cases of election interference, he would present evidence to back up that claim. If there’s something wrong, we all need to know what it is and get to the bottom of it.”

Being a smaller state, Idaho is much better suited to work in a bipartisan manner, Keough said, though sometimes it doesn’t work out so well.

“Once you’re elected, the issues tend to fall on different lines,” she said. “It’s the rural/urban divide, or those that like public schools and those who don’t. Those who want to invest in roads and those that don’t. It’s less about the party. Not to say there weren’t party differences, but those generally fell away on the nuts-and-bolts work at hand. You have to pass a budget, fix the roads, fund schools. We can agree to disagree, because the person you might be arguing against right now, you might argue with together on something else in a day or two — or even on the next bill. There was always a collegiality of understanding of the need to try to figure out how to work together.”

Though Idaho politics has been strained in recent years due to more extreme candidates pushing ideology over functional policy, Keough said bipartisanship is still alive in Idaho politics today.

“Sometimes issues involve getting folks across the aisle to work with you,” she said. “I believe you still see that in Idaho today.”

While cooperation across the aisle is paramount for a productive session, Keough also acknowledges that communication is often the key component missing when lawmakers from opposing parties find themselves at loggerheads with one another on a certain issue.

“Where I have seen a deterioration to the level of national discourse is the campaigning on the Republican side,” she said. “My party has gotten more shrill and less civil; the rise of organizations like Idaho Freedom Foundation, which are entitled to their opinions, but they are less than civil in their approach.”

The IFF is a right-wing lobby whose Idaho Freedom Index ranks Idaho lawmakers on how closely their voting records hew to its self-constructed conservative rubric. IFF also organized many of the “Disobey Idaho” protests to oppose Gov. Little’s extension of the statewide stay-at-home order during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Their involvement and organizations like them and the approach they use have made it difficult to: 1., find people that want to run for office; and, 2., once you run for office, to get the work done that is required to do, like passing the budget,” Keough said. “Even those who do not like government always manage to find something that state government is supposed to do for them, and it takes legislative action to get those things done. If you can’t have a civil dialogue without name-calling, that makes it difficult.”

Ultimately, Keough said it’s incumbent upon all of us to “break down some of the walls and open lines of communication. I think all of us should try to participate. It might sound touchy-feely … but there are so many more things we agree on than disagree. We have to have the ability to talk to one another to sort through those things. Also, find a way to resolve the differences we have in a way that allows for respectful communication that’s two-way. If you don’t, and we continue to fray the relationships, it gets very stark to see nationally just how divided we are. 

“Each one of us individually has a responsibility to reach out to someone we don’t see eye to eye with and open our ears to listen to their perspective and hope they listen to yours.”

Regarding the fact that ideological issues often take center stage and bedrock issues are sometimes pushed aside, Keough said there’s a time and a place for everything.

“I can get into an ideological confrontation with the best of them, but at the end of the day the state Legislature is about running the nuts and bolts of the state,” Keough said. “You can spend time on the ideological stuff, but that doesn’t get things done. … If we really truly believe that we are the United States of America, we’re going to have to figure out how to talk to one another, and say I don’t agree with you on that issue, but I know we want our roads plowed, so let’s figure it out.”

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