Boise voters may be surprised to see what options — or lack thereof — appear on their ballot come Election Day.
The Boise municipal elections on Nov. 2 will mark the city’s first since establishing new districts for City Council seats. Previously, all six council seats were elected at-large, meaning residents could vote on all council positions regardless of where they lived.
Election officials say they’re concerned voters may be confused about the system and what exactly they can vote on. Ada County Chief Deputy Clerk Trent Tripple said his office is fielding many calls from residents confused about the process.
“Some people are expecting to vote on city seats and they are not currently living in a district whose seat is up for election,” Tripple said.
It’s Boise’s first municipal election since the Legislature passed House Bill 413 in 2020, which required cities with more than 100,000 residents to have electoral districts for city council races.
This year, three of Boise’s six districts will hold open elections: District 1 (West Boise), District 3 (North End, Collister, Sunset, Veterans Park) and District 5 (East End, downtown, the Bench).
Council Member Elaine Clegg, who led the city’s public awareness campaign for the new districts, said she shares concerns that many voters don’t understand the district system and may not be as informed when they get to the polls.
“I don’t see a lot of awareness about it,” Clegg said by phone. “It’s not that I think anybody’s not doing the right thing. It’s just such a big change.”
Luci Willits, a candidate in District 1, said she’s noticed too many residents who are not aware that an election is only weeks away.
So far, turnout during early voting has been mostly normal. As of Thursday, a little more than 1,000 Ada County residents had cast their votes in early balloting, which is available until Oct. 29. Ada County also sent out 7,500 absentee ballots, of which 1,700 had been returned, Tripple said.
Tripple said the vast majority of voting is done on Election Day.
Melanie Folwell, who has run several local campaigns, said Boiseans have been so accustomed to voting for all council seats that this sudden change could be a surprise for some.
“I don’t think there has been a widespread understanding of why now people are only able to vote for one candidate,” Folwell said.
There is a concern that, with half of the districts not voting for a council member, turnout could be lower than normal. The last off-year election without a mayoral race in 2017 saw a turnout of 20% and the previous one in 2013 had a turnout of 23%, according to a 2017 study by The Boise Commons, a local non-profit that provides data on Boise politics.
“While there’s 21,000-27,000 registered voters in each one of these districts, only about 5,000-6,000 of them will most likely show up based off the historic turnout trends,” Tripple said.
Stephanie Witt, a professor at Boise State University’s School of Public Service, said some voters might be hard-pressed to go to the polls when the only item on the ballot citywide is a $570 million sewer bond. All Boise voters will have the chance to vote on a $570 million sewer bond.
“In a year like this, there’s no one contentious issue,” Witt said. “I would expect turnout to be pretty low.”
Nevertheless, advocates in favor of districts argue they could increase in turnout in parts of the city that have been historically underrepresented on the city level.
The Boise Commons study found neighborhoods around the downtown, East End and North End were far more likely to vote than other parts of the city, between 35-45% on average. Such areas as West and Northwest Boise had turnouts at about 10% in 2017.
Willits said she thinks voters in her district will turn out more since they are guaranteed to have a councilor from their area.
“A lower turnout … meant candidate’s didn’t come to West Boise,” Willits said by phone. “So our issues weren’t often talked about.”
Of the six current council members, five live in the North End, East End or Highland neighborhoods. Witt said most councilors over the years have hailed from these areas.
City Hall released the district boundaries in June, after hiring Seattle firm Floyd, Pflueger & Ringer for up to $90,000 to assist with the project. Officials say this gave them a short time frame to create the maps and educate the public on the new system.
“I think that added some confusion,” Clegg said. “The Legislature didn’t give us time.”
A second bill — Senate Bill 1111 — had been introduced during the 2021 legislative session to amend some of the rules laid out in the original bill. It would have, among other things, given the city more time to draw maps utilizing current census data. The bill, though, stalled in committee, leaving the city with little time to put together a map for the upcoming election.
H.B. 413 had multiple opponents, primarily Democrats based in and around Boise. Both incumbents, Councilors Holli Woodings and Lisa Sánchez, have criticized the state mandating districts, with Sánchez saying it could make it more difficult for renters like her to serve on City Council.
District 3 has seen a tremendous amount of fundraising. Sánchez and rival candidate Greg MacMillan have each raised more than $40,000, evidenced by the large amount of campaign signs seen across neighborhoods in the district. Republican Party leaders have also said they’re backing MacMillan’s campaign.
The race has also attracted large monetary donations and involvement from conservative groups in the state. Conservative Citizens for Thoughtful Growth, a political action committee based in Eagle, recently sent out text messages to voters calling Sánchez a “radical” who stoked division in the community.
Adding to the confusion potentially is that the city will draw another district map before the 2023 election, this time using finalized data from the 2020 U.S. Census. The 2020 census data came out in August, too late to be used in this election. The current map is based on 2010 census data, although figures from the 2019 American Community Survey were taken into consideration.
Boise’s population grew by 14% to more than 235,000 from 2010 to 2020.
Clegg said the new map will mostly resemble the current one, with slight adjustments for districts that have seen exponential growth the past year.
Those looking to find their district can access the city of Boise website (www.cityofboise.org/departments/city-council/city-council-election-districts), which allows residents to type in their address. The Ada County Clerk (adacounty.id.gov/elections) also has a feature showing voters exactly what will be on their ballot based on where they live.