In Idaho, Democrats try to hold on to hope beyond their ruby red state

Idaho voters visit a food-truck-inspired pop-up voting location in Boise on Sept. 27.
Idaho voters visit a food-truck-inspired pop-up voting location in Boise on Sept. 27. Some early-morning voters in the state on election day stood in line outside polling places in freezing temperatures.
(Kimberlee Kruesi / Associated Press)

Voters lined up in the early morning cold at the Hispanic Cultural Center of Idaho here to make sure they could cast a ballot in one of the state’s most populous counties, where the number of polling places was cut from 55 to just 21, and long lines were expected.

“Anyone need water? Granola bar? Hand sanitizer?” volunteers called out. They wore “Voter Experience Team” buttons and bright yellow vests and also offered handwarmers in hopes of making a long wait in the 37-degree morning less painful.

Twenty or so miles west and five hours later, the “State Street Demonstration for American Values,” wrapped up its 145th and apparently final day calling for equality and justice in the shadow of the state capitol. Around 100 strong, the group lined the busy Boise roadway, as passing motorists honked and a boombox blasted “I believe in miracles…. You sexy thing!”


The demonstration began shortly after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis as a bright blue gesture in this very red state. Signs urged drivers to “honk for equality,” “to respect science, respect nature, respect each other” and vote.

Not long after the demonstrators departed for the last time, two shiny pickups drove by, big “Trump 2020” flags flapping from the truck beds.

By late afternoon on election day, Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, warned voters to beware of “suspicious robo-calls” advising voters to “stay home, stay safe” on election day. The calls are not from any official office and should be ignored.”

Election day 2020 is a stark reminder of political life in the Gem State. This is a place where former Vice President Joe Biden literally had zero chance against President Trump in Canyon County or anywhere else.

Idaho tied for the No. 10 spot with Nebraska in 2016 for how fervently its voters embraced Trump in his first run for the Oval Office. In both states, the Republican got 59% of the vote, while Hillary Rodham Clinton limped away with 27.5% of the vote in Idaho and 34% in Nebraska.

At the Hispanic Cultural Center, Esteban Galan managed the team of young volunteers working to ease the uncomfortable wait to cast a ballot. Galan is the field director for congressional hopeful Rudy Soto. And he views the paucity of polling places in this fast-growing region — and heart of Idaho’s Latino population — as blatant voter suppression.

“I try really hard not to equate inadequate resources to evil,” the 27-year-old Democrat said. “I don’t assume voter suppression is intentional. Nevertheless, it’s the same impact…. Our goal is making sure everybody who wants to vote gets to vote.”

Esteban Galan, field director for Democratic congressional candidate Rudy Soto, at the Hispanic Cultural Center of Idaho.
Esteban Galan, field director for Democratic congressional candidate Rudy Soto, helped workers at the Hispanic Cultural Center in Nampa, Idaho on Tuesday. It was a frustrating day for Democratic voters in the state.
(Maria LaGanga / Los Angeles Times)

J.D. Driskell was in line before the center’s voting booths opened for business at 8 a.m. He wore a knit Harley-Davidson cap pulled down just above his eyes to keep out the chill and an American flag neck gaiter pulled up just below his eyes to keep out the virus.

The 51-year-old Nampa resident works in the oil industry. He wanted to vote early in the day so he could get back to his computer. The lengthy line did not surprise him. Nor would the winner of ruby red Idaho’s four electoral votes, a fait accompli even at this early hour.

“Of course, I’m a Republican,” he said. “I like everybody on the Republican ticket, as of right now.”

Canyon County spokesman Joe Decker said the decrease in polling places was a result of the pandemic. Most poll workers are older residents, and they’re at greater risk for the virus because of their age.

“We have very few veteran poll workers,” Decker said Tuesday morning at county election headquarters here. “It was really the thought of opening a voting location with all new poll workers that was scary to us. … It’s not voter suppression at all. We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for people to vote.”

The virus is no abstract threat here. The county has seen a serious spike in cases. And less than two weeks before election day, five poll workers at an early voting location in Caldwell, Idaho, contracted COVID-19. Six if you count Chris Yamamoto, who is clerk of Canyon County and the area’s chief elections officer.

Campaign 2020: Here’s what life is like in deep-red Idaho during a pandemic in the final days of a bitter presidential campaign.

Idaho can be a lonely place for a Democrat, especially when you get out of Boise, the state capital, Idaho’s economic center and home to Boise State University. It’s an even lonelier place for a Republican who voted for Biden this election season.

Idaho Women for Biden-Harris aims to cure some of that isolation. It also reflects the reality for those who do not hew the conservative line.

The private Facebook page was kicked off in July. In its first 48 hours it had 400 members. In the first week, there were 1,000. Today there are more than 10,500. The rules are strict. No Trump supporters. No incivility. No name calling. No trolls.

The posts are filled with tales of relationships shattered because of politics, of Biden-Harris signs stolen, of fears of coming out as a Biden supporter, especially in the least populous corners of this rural state, of relief at finding a community of like-minded people.

“I sometimes feel like Mother Superior or a counselor,” said Betty Richardson, co-founder of the group and its co-administrator. “This is a place where women can say how isolated they fee.… We’ve had people tell us it’s been a lifesaver.

“It’s kind of cool when we have someone from a small community come across another person from the same place and find out that they’re both Biden supporters,” said Richardson, who worked for the late U.S. Sen. Frank Church, a Democratic icon in Idaho, and was appointed U.S. attorney for the District of Idaho by President Clinton. “They’ve never talked about it before.”

Election 2020: When will we know if Biden or Trump wins? What happens if Trump says he won while votes are still being counted? What’s a ‘red mirage’?

By the time the polls closed across the country, Boise was battened down for the night. Two days earlier, the state Republican Party canceled its election night event at the Riverside Inn.

The Victory 2020 office, Biden-Harris headquarters, was under heavy security. Because of the pandemic, only 50 staff, volunteers and local candidates could gather to watch returns roll in.

Terri Pickens, a member of Idaho Women for Biden-Harris, had trained 70 women and 10 men to make get-out-the-vote calls — to battleground states, not Idaho itself. Biden didn’t have a chance here, so on Tuesday the group focused on Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

By 9:15 p.m. the tense Boise attorney decided to head home. “They’ve stopped counting in Michigan and Pennsylvania,” she said. “Wisconsin’s not looking good.... I don’t understand how a man with a 43% approval rating could get another term.”