Idaho Supreme Court overturns new restrictions on polling initiative

The Idaho Supreme Court said Republican state lawmakers had no “compelling” interest in adding significant restrictions to Idaho’s ballot initiative process.

Earlier this year, Republican state lawmakers passed and Governor Brad Little enacted the law, a bill making Idaho’s initiative process one of the strictest in the country.

The law required campaigns to collect signatures equal to 6% of registered voters in each of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts. They would also have needed to obtain a minimum of nearly 65,000 signatures statewide.

Opponents like Reclaim Idaho, the group behind the successful Medicaid expansion initiative in 2018, have said the law makes it impossible to qualify an initiative or referendum for the ballot.

The judges said the effects of the bill created a “perceived, but unfounded, fear of ‘tyranny of the majority’ by replacing it with genuine ‘tyranny of the minority.’

“This would result in a scheme which would be in direct conflict with the democratic ideals which form the basis of the constitutional republic created by the Constitution of Idaho, and would seriously compromise the popular initiative and the referendum powers which are devoted to it”, have writes the judges in the majority opinion.

Reclaim Idaho and the Committee for the Protection and Preservation of the Constitution of Idaho sued the state in May to repeal the law, which the Idaho Supreme Court did on Monday.

“The court not only struck down the anti-initiative law, the court also recognized the initiative process as a fundamental right of the people of Idaho,” said Luke Mayville, one of the co-founders of Reclaim Idaho.

The two groups that sued also asked the court to dismiss all requirements for collecting geographic signatures, meaning a campaign could get all the required signatures in one part of the state.

The judges refused to do so, instead reinstating the old requirements.

The initiative and referendum campaigns will still need to obtain the signatures of 6% of registered voters in 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts, as well as meet the total number of 65,000 signatures statewide.

“We find it very heavy, but we’ve proven that it’s at least possible and it’s a great relief – that the initiative process is still possible to use,” Mayville said.

Reclaim Idaho had filed an initiative with the secretary of state’s office to reverse those geographic requirements, but Mayville said his group would not push the issue this year.

Instead, Reclaim Idaho kicks off a statewide tour next week to promote an initiative that would raise taxes for the wealthy and businesses to better fund K-12 public schools.

In a statement, House Speaker Scott Bedke (R-Oakley) said his caucus was disappointed with the Idaho Supreme Court’s ruling.

“These changes to the referendum / voter initiative process would have served to increase voter turnout and inclusion, especially in corners of the state too often overlooked by some,” Bedke wrote.

But the judges rejected this argument.

“Rather than distributing power fairly across the state, the legislature has achieved the exact opposite,” they say in the majority opinion, claiming that it gives each district a “veto” over any initiative.

An urban district, they said, could block an agriculture-related initiative even if it had significant support statewide. Or, another special interest group might focus their time, attention, and money in one district to oppose it.

“If the real purpose of the legislature is to prevent any initiative or referendum from qualifying for the ballot, then that is probably an effective tactic,” the judges wrote.

The state legislature, the judges said, has the power to regulate the initiative process, but those regulations need to be tightly tailored.

Under the law, an initiative passed by voters in a general election in November would not take effect until July of the following year.

The Idaho Supreme Court also blocked this provision, saying it is “an unconstitutional violation of the right of peoples to legislate independently of the legislature.”

Idahoans in 1912 amended the constitution to create the initiative process, which allows citizens to propose and create new laws outside the confines of the state legislature. The referendum process also allows them to reject laws passed by lawmakers.

In more than 100 years since then, only 15 initiatives have been adopted out of the 30 that have been voted on. Only four have appeared on the ballot in the past two decades.

The state will cover legal fees for Reclaim Idaho and the Committee for the Protection and Preservation of the Idaho Constitution. A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office was not immediately clear how much money had been spent to defend the now outdated law.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

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