Shawn Keenan, left, and Phil McGrane are vying for the job of Idaho secretary of state. | Courtesy Shawn Keenan and Aaron Kunz, Idaho Public Television
BOISE (Idaho Capital Sun) — It’s not often that a candidate in an opposing political party, running for the same statewide office, says the state will be fine even if the other guy wins.
But that’s what is happening in the race for Idaho’s next secretary of state.
The Idaho Secretary of State is an executive office responsible for administering state elections, keeping records on businesses, trademarks, tax liens, notaries and other professions, and has various other duties related to official documentation. The secretary of state also serves on the State Board of Land Commissioners, also known as the Land Board, which is responsible for directing the management of more than 2.5 million acres of state endowment trust lands across Idaho.
Whoever is victorious will replace Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, who was first elected to the office in 2014 and is not seeking re-election.
Democrat Shawn Keenan, who lives in Coeur d’Alene, decided to make his first foray into running for public office during the Republican primary, when two out of three Republicans in the race — Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, and Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley — said they thought the 2020 presidential election was stolen, a claim that has no evidence. Keenan said he couldn’t stand by and watch it happen.
“I’m not for people who project misinformation and disinformation purposely to rile up and mislead voters. I think it’s completely disingenuous and also hurtful to our democracy,” Keenan told the Idaho Capital Sun in an interview this month. “When I see candidates campaigning on conspiracy and lies, I’m going to call it out.”
Neither Souza nor Moon emerged victorious from the primary on May 17. Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane won the contest by a little more than 1.5%, and Moon went on to be elected chairwoman of the Idaho Republican Party.
Keenan said he didn’t know much about McGrane, so he called up some political friends in the Boise area.
“I kind of vetted him really hard and said, ‘Hey, what’s up with this Phil guy?’” Keenan said, and every person he talked to had glowing things to say. “I felt good about that and thought, OK, well — win, lose or draw, Idaho’s going to be safe.”
Keenan, 45, was born and raised in North Idaho and earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston. His interest in politics started when he was 9 years old, he said, when he inadvertently canvassed door-to-door with a neighbor who was campaigning for former Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus. At the time, Keenan had no idea who Andrus was, but he wanted to join his mom for the local upcoming Bloomsday Run.
“I asked my neighbor what he was doing, and he said he was walking lots of miles, so I said, ‘I want to go with you’ because all I heard was ‘lots of miles,’” Keenan said.
Through middle school and high school, Keenan stayed up to date on political issues and started his own progressive political clubs. Shortly after he graduated from college, Keenan started volunteering on local, statewide and national Democratic campaigns in Idaho, including as a field organizer.
An Idaho Democratic Party operative asked Keenan if he was interested in running for secretary of state, and he decided to take the leap. But without a campaign website or social media presence, and with few media interviews about his qualifications, his profile throughout the election cycle has remained low.
As secretary, Keenan would focus on election uniformity
Keenan said he met with McGrane in the summer, when McGrane was in the area campaigning. Through the course of the conversation, Keenan determined they were in agreement on the vast majority of issues surrounding elections.
“It gives me confidence knowing he cares a lot about elections, and he’s been doing a great job in Ada County,” Keenan said.
The one main difference between the two that Keenan could identify, and the reason he says Idahoans should vote for him, was that he is not willing to cave to any pressure from the Idaho Republican Party or conservative political groups.
“(McGrane) did signal he wanted to give them a little bit of a tip of the hat of some sort,” Keenan said. “But you’re seeing this problem in all offices, which is bullying and intimidation, that is really causing public officials to change their intentions as far as doing public service. They don’t want to be risky with a policy, they temper what they say, and I think that’s a real disservice to our democracy.”
As secretary, Keenan said he would prioritize voter access, particularly for young people, after several pieces of legislation that he thought would disenfranchise voters nearly made it through the Idaho Legislature earlier this year.
He would also work toward more uniform election training for clerks and poll workers across the state to minimize discrepancies in election administration. He said that kind of uniformity would help lessen the concerns over fraud, which are often driven by miscommunication or incorrect assumptions.
“A solid, uniform election delivery system needs to happen, and that means proper training is done,” Keenan said. “I think it’s important to gain the confidence of the citizens, even though there hasn’t been any valid reason to destroy their confidence.”
If he is unsuccessful in the secretary’s race, Keenan said he’s still considering running for a county commissioner seat in Coeur d’Alene.
McGrane admits he finds himself in a challenging position less than two weeks before the Nov. 8 election.
As Ada County clerk, McGrane is chief elections administrator for Idaho’s largest county leading up to Nov. 8. While he has delegated many responsibilities to his chief deputy since his name is on the ballot, it’s still a busy season for his office, and people are already starting to approach him about ideas for legislation well ahead of Election Day.
McGrane has a long list of Republican endorsements, including current Gov. Brad Little, former Govs. C.L. “Butch” Otter, Phil Batt and Dirk Kempthorne, and former Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa.
But he faced criticism from conservatives for his lack of support of bills by his Republican primary opponents, Sen. Mary Souza of Coeur d’Alene and Rep. Dorothy Moon of Stanley, who is now chairwoman of the Idaho Republican Party. The bills by Souza and Moon would have tightened voter registration and identification laws, and are premised on the disproven claims that Idaho’s elections are vulnerable to widespread fraud.
The race wasn’t exactly a friendly competition. Moon accused him of misconduct as clerk for taking a grant from a nonprofit organization that was funded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to help with election administration during the 2020 election and implied he would not protect election integrity.
Several of Moon’s supporters will almost certainly occupy new seats in the Idaho Legislature in January as well. That could mean resistance to McGrane’s budget and policy priorities.
McGrane became Ada County’s chief deputy clerk in 2011 and served in that role until he was elected clerk in 2018. He directed the largest absentee election in state history in 2020, and touts the office’s recognition as one of the state’s Top 10 Best Places to Work in 2019, 2020 and 2021. He ran against Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney in the 2014 Republican primary and came in second.
McGrane said he plans to work as well as he can with Moon and the chairwoman of the Idaho Democratic Party, Lauren Necochea.
“My goal is to make sure that although we may have differences of opinion on policy, the office is running in an even-handed manner,” he said.
Phil McGrane, the Republican nominee for Idaho secretary of state, speaks at a campaign event at the Idaho Capitol. | Courtesy Phil McGrane
McGrane: The best way to build trust in elections is to be willing to work with everyone
If he wins, there will barely be time to take a breath before the 2023 legislative session begins, where many new legislators will take their seats and new leadership will be chosen, including Speaker of the House.
“It’s almost unfair for everybody who takes these statewide offices, that you start at the very beginning of the legislative session,” McGrane said. “You don’t even get to find out where the bathroom is before you have to go testify at the Legislature.”
But McGrane is plenty familiar with testifying at the Legislature, and he expects to still have good working relationships with more senior legislators who will still occupy their seats. That doesn’t mean he won’t face some headwinds, though.
“I have heard there are some new members coming in who are, and are not, very supportive of me,” McGrane said.
He expects election-related bills could be among the first to be introduced regardless of what happens between now and January, and he plans to help craft a few election integrity bills himself, including voter identification laws.
Will he cave to political pressures, as Keenan suggested he might? McGrane says he will run his office in a way that builds trust with people of all political persuasions.
“No matter where you sit on the political spectrum, you have to have confidence in our elections,” McGrane said. “There are even people in Ammon Bundy’s circle who will call me to get advice, because they at least have confidence that I’ll be straight with them.”
Bundy and his supporters have made their distrust of government officials well known.
Campaign finance is another area McGrane thinks needs a lot of work in Idaho. Much of it could be achieved through rewriting the existing laws to make them clearer and easier to follow, he said. While many people engaged in Idaho politics want to see more enforcement mechanisms for violations, McGrane said it should first be easy to comply with the law.
“Everyone is eager for enforcement. The problem is, it’s confusing and complicated, so the number one excuse is, ‘I didn’t understand,’” McGrane said. “And it’s tough to say that’s not true, because you look at (Idaho Code), and it is confusing.”
He also wants to bring back training classes for candidates and treasurers of campaigns before every election cycle so that all participants know how to report correctly, which could include best practice recommendations. To build confidence in elections and prevent corruption, transparency is key, he said.
As the chief elections official in Ada County, McGrane has pushed to make voting data available to the public in a number of ways, including visualizations that paint a picture of what’s happening at the polls. McGrane added that investments in better campaign finance software at the state level would also help create a more robust, easy-to-follow system.
Another of his primary goals is to create a comprehensive voter guide that would be sent prior to an election that would not only let Idahoans know an election is coming up, but also provide simple information about what’s on the ballot. The most common question his office receives is about voter guides, regardless of party affiliation, he said.
No matter how any of those ideas fare in the Idaho Legislature and beyond, McGrane said Idaho’s elections will continue to be a model.
“I think our election system works well in Idaho, and I keep really trying to bring that to the forefront,” he said. “I love this stuff, and I’m excited to see us continue to shine as a state.”
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