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Idaho Supreme Court Strikes Down New Ballot Initiative Restrictions

The front of the Idaho Capitol building showing the bell and stairs. Two people are standing on the left-hand side.
James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio

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

Earlier this year, Republican state lawmakers passed, and Gov. Brad Little signed into law, a bill making Idaho’s initiative process one of the most stringent in the nation.

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

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

Justices said the effects of the bill created a “perceived, but unsubstantiated fear of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ by replacing it with an actual ‘tyranny of the minority.’”

“This would result in a scheme that squarely conflicts with the democratic ideals that form the bedrock of the constitutional republic created by the Idaho Constitution, and seriously undermines the people’s initiative and referendum powers enshrined therein,” justices wrote in the majority opinion.

Reclaim Idaho and the Committee to Protect and Preserve the Idaho Constitution sued the state in May to strike down the law, which the Idaho Supreme Court did on Monday.

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

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

Justices declined to do that, instead reinstating the old requirements.

Initiative and referendum campaigns will still need to get signatures from 6% of registered voters in 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts, as well as meet the overall number of 65,000 signatures statewide.

“We find it very burdensome, but we’ve proven that it is at least possible and that’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 overturn those geographic requirements, but Mayville said his group will not push the issue this year.

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

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

“These changes to the voter referendum/initiative process would’ve served to increase voter involvement and inclusivity, especially in the corners of the state too often forgotten by some,” Bedke wrote.

But justices rejected that argument.

“Rather than evenly distributing power across the state, the legislature has achieved just the opposite,” they say in the majority opinion, saying it gives each district “veto power” over any initiative.

An urban district, they said, could block an agriculture-related initiative even if it had significant support statewide. Or, some other special interest group could focus its time, attention and money in a single district to oppose it.

“If the legislature’s actual goal is to prevent any initiative or referendum from qualifying for the ballot, then this is probably an effective tactic,” the justices wrote.

The state legislature, justices said, does have the authority to regulate the initiative process, but these regulations must be narrowly tailored.

Under the law, an initiative passed by voters during a general election in November wouldn’t take effect until July of the following year.

The Idaho Supreme Court also blocked that provision, saying it is “an unconstitutional infringement on the peoples’ right to legislate independent of the legislature.”

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

In the more than 100 years since then, just 15 initiatives have passed out of the 30 that have made it onto the ballot. Just four have appeared on the ballot in the last two decades.

The state will cover attorney fees for Reclaim Idaho and the Committee to Protect and Preserve the Idaho Constitution. A spokesperson for the attorney general's office didn't immediately know how much money has been spent to defend the now defunct law.

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

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I cover politics and a bit of everything else for Boise State Public Radio. Outside of public meetings, you can find me fly fishing, making cool things out of leather or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season. If you have a tip, please get in touch!

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