Idaho Lawmakers Move Closer To Making It Harder To Get Initiatives On The Ballot


An Idaho House panel approved legislation Monday making it more difficult to get initiatives or referendums on ballots in what is widely seen as a rural vs. urban issue.

The House State Affairs Committee voted 12-2, with both Democratic lawmakers opposed, to send the measure to the House. Republican Gov. Brad Little vetoed similar legislation in 2019. The current legislation has already passed the state Senate with enough votes to overcome a possible veto.

Backers said the ballot initiative process favors urban voters and needs to be changed to give rural voters more say. They said signature gatherers can focus on urban areas and ignore rural ones, and that urban areas will grow in power as the state’s population continues its rapid increase.

Amy Pratt personally collected more than 1,000 signatures to help get Proposition 2 on the ballot. It's the first time she's been politically active and she has no plans of stopping. CREDIT: JAMES DAWSON / BSPR

File photo. Amy Pratt with advocacy group Reclaim Idaho personally collected more than 1,000 signatures to help get Medicaid expansion Proposition 2 on Idaho’s 2018 ballot. CREDIT: James Dawson / BSPR

Opponents said the measure violates the Idaho Constitution because it makes getting initiatives on ballots nearly impossible, giving a single legislative district what amounts to veto power.

Current rules require signatures from 6% of registered voters in each of 18 legislative districts in 18 months. The proposed law would require 6% of registered voters in all 35 Idaho districts in 18 months.

“Rural counties are losing political influence, and that is one of the main concerns that I have,” said Republican Rep. Vito Barbieri. “Other states here in the West are controlled politically by large cities, and we just can’t allow that here in Idaho.”

In all, 14 states allow voter initiatives that go directly to the ballot, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Democratic Rep. Chris Mathias said he wants to “make sure to protect and enshrine the role and the influence of our rural friends.” But he said the current legislation could do away with ballot initiatives entirely.

“Are we going so far in one direction that we render the constitutional right wholly unexercisable? I fear we do,” he said.

The constitutionality of the bill would almost certainly be challenged in court if it becomes law.

Voter-driven ballot initiatives, which act as a check on the Legislature, have become a major focus in the state in recent years. After years of inaction by Republican lawmakers, 62% 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 toughened 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 would have required that people asked to sign initiative petitions be shown notes on fiscal impact and possible funding sources.

Another bill called for signatures from 24 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts over nine months. It also would have 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.

Little hasn’t said whether he would veto the current bill, but he hinted that might happen during a wide-ranging news conference last week when he suggested lawmakers look at his reasoning behind those two earlier vetoes.

Notably, a federal court last summer dismissed a lawsuit challenging Idaho’s current ballot initiative requirements. That could mean that if the ballot initiative process is made tougher and then successfully challenged in court, the process could simply revert to current requirements.

Copyright 2021 Associated Press