BOISE — Legislation aimed at making it more difficult to get initiatives or referendums on Idaho ballots headed to the full Senate on Friday.
The Senate State Affairs Committee approved the measure that Republican Sen. Steve Vick said is needed to give rural voters more say in the process. The proposed law would diminish the effect of large population centers in getting initiatives on ballots.
“Urban voters and rural voters have different interests in many cases,” Vick told lawmakers. “I think that it’s important that we have that broad spectrum of support for an initiative before it gets on the ballot.”
Current rules require signatures from 6% of registered voters in each of 18 legislative districts in 18 months, plus a number of signatures that equals 6% or all registered voters in the state. Vick said that requirement could potentially be reached in four counties that contain 18 districts, making the process tilted toward urban areas.
The proposed law would change that to requiring 6% of registered voters in all 35 Idaho legislative districts in 18 months.
Opponents contend the measure violates the Idaho Constitution because it makes getting initiatives on ballots nearly impossible, giving a single legislative district veto power.
“It seems to me that what we’re setting up is a scheme that is just not democratic,” said Democratic Sen. Grant Burgoyne. He said the proposed law treats urban voters with disdain. “We are all Idahoans,” he said.
So many people signed up to testify that the public hearing bled into two days, with testimony taken Wednesday and Friday.
Most of those who testified opposed the bill, some noting that if it became law it would be challenged in court.
Some who testified in support of the measure said they were from rural areas and felt disenfranchised.
“I have no representation in the current initiative process,” said Scott Steele of Bonneville County.
Gary Moncrief, a retired political science professor from Boise State University, told lawmakers that many of them represented rural areas, including Republican House Speaker Scott Bedke of Oakley, and Republican Gov. Brad Little, who lives in Emmett. Republicans also hold super-majorities in both the House and Senate.
“There is simply no evidence that rural interests are underrepresented in Idaho politics,” Moncrief said.
Little vetoed two similar ballot initiative bills in 2019, citing concerns that a federal court could rule such restrictions unconstitutional and dictate the state’s initiative process. His office has declined to comment on the current legislation.
“Direct democracy is at the heart of Idaho values,” said Lauren Bramwell of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, which opposed the measure. “Idaho’s ballot initiative process is already onerous.”
Voter-driven ballot initiatives have become a major focus in the state in recent years. After years of inaction by Republican lawmakers, 62 percent of Idaho voters approved an initiative expanding Medicaid in 2018.
That’s been the only successful ballot initiative since the current rules were put in place in 2013. Lawmakers toughed the process that year after voters by referendum overturned laws involving education reform.
In response to Medicaid expansion, Republicans in the House and Senate in 2019 tried to make the initiative process nearly impossible so they could head off future measures such as raising the minimum wage and legalizing marijuana.
The first of the 2019 measures would have required signatures from 10% of registered voters in 32 of 35 districts over six months.
It also required that people asked to sign initiative petitions be shown notes on their fiscal impact and possible funding sources. Another bill required signatures from 24 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts over nine months. It also required the signatures of 10% of registered voters and specifying the funding source.
The Republican-dominated House and Senate passed both bills, but Little vetoed them, fearing a federal court ruling and order setting the state’s initiative process.
Notably, a federal court last summer dismissed a lawsuit challenging Idaho’s current ballot initiative requirements. That potentially means that if the ballot initiative process is made tougher with the proposed new law and is challenged in court, a loss could simply mean a fallback to current requirements.
Earlier this month, the Idaho secretary of state’s office approved signature gathering by a group that wants a medical marijuana legalization initiative put on the ballot in November 2022.
Russ Belville of the Idaho Citizens Coalition told lawmakers his group collected 40,000 signatures last year on its way to getting a marijuana initiative on the ballot before the coronavirus pandemic hit, shutting down the effort.