For the elected officials in Boise who just wanted to pass laws as they saw fit and be done with it, the initiative had become a nuisance.
Now, there is the potential for it to become more than that — as a result of the best efforts to hack it away.
The initiative, a process that gained popularity nationally a little more than a century ago, is a way for voters to pass a state law, one with the same standing as a law passed by the legislature. It’s intended to be a way for the voters to get what they want when the legislature refuses to do it. Initiatives are allowed by 24 states, each of which have different rules for getting an initiative on the ballot.
In Idaho, where 14 initiatives have passed since the process was authorized in 1912, initiative access rules have changed over time. The success of ballot measures has been a factor. The last big ballot measures contravening legislative will came in 2012, when three referenda — another type of ballot measure, aimed at rejecting (or sustaining) a legislative-passed law — killed three new laws relating to public schools. When legislators got back to Boise the next year, they passed Senate Bill 1108, which made ballot access for initiative proposals a lot harder. It made access so hard, in fact, that there have been no initiatives on the Idaho ballot since.
The rules had set the bar for ballot entry high already. Before 2013, advocates had to get petition signatures — valid ones, complying with a series of rules — from 6 percent of all registered voters. Since that allowed for a concentration of votes from the bigger urban areas as enough to pass, the 2013 rules added a provision that the 6 percent mark had to be reached in more than half of the state’s 35 legislative districts (that is, 18 of them). And they had to do it within a narrow time frame.
So initiative backers this year needed to collect at least 56,192 signatures, and certain portions of them had to come from within certain legislative districts — not just any Idaho voter signatures would do.
The frustration that needed to develop before organizers were able to pull together the volunteer effort needed to accomplish this must have been awe-inspiring. And it appears to be enough. The final checks are still ongoing, but there’s a good chance that the signatures turned in by the May 1 deadline will be enough to ensure a Medicaid expansion measure reaches the statewide ballot in Idaho in November.
That may make for a significant change in state law. (We’ll see: A legislature and governor still have the power to repeal it.)
But more than that, it could serve as a template for political organization.
Think about what those petition signatures — the total number of names could amount to 62,000 or so — could mean. These are people who have in effect become part of an organization, a political organization, one dedicated to changing the law and politics in Idaho. Suppose, as a result of the high level of energy and skill developed, and the contacts and reach engendered, through this ballot effort, the work is turned into future ballot issues. And beyond that: Suppose it becomes the backbone of a new political organization around the state.
For a couple of decades I’ve suggested that one of the best organizing tools Idaho Democrats (or, really, any outsider group with a still-large base of support) could use is ballot issues, partly as an indicator of what the group is for, and partly as a tool for helping it organize.
To make that work, to make it matter, an easy process for achieving ballot status would do little good, since there would be no need for a really strong and large organization.
But the harder that task is, the stronger the organization must be to get the job done.
The Medicaid expansion organization has proven itself highly capable of making a difference. The question its leaders should be asking now is: What should we do next?