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Ballot Initiatives Shutter In Idaho And The U.S. As Coronavirus Surges

Amy Pratt, Idahoans for Healthcare, Medicaid for Idaho, canvas
James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio

The sounds of signature gatherers walking door-to-door in many states would normally be just on the horizon as spring comes into bloom.

But with large events being shut down and door-to-door canvassing potentially hazardous, ballot initiative organizers in many states are having to completely shut down their campaigns.

Linda Larson was overseeing a group of volunteers in the lakeside town of Sandpoint in north Idaho for one such ballot initiative campaign. It would’ve expanded education funding by raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations in the state. 

Just a few weeks ago, with the coronavirus percolating right across the border in Washington, Larson decided she had to take extra care in making sure her team was safe when they went out in public.

“All of our volunteers would have an apron with hand sanitizer in the apron and some alcoholic wipes and we were cleaning the pens before we would give them to someone to sign,” she said.

She even took precautions herself, since she had to notarize each and every one of these petitions.

“I put all of the petitions in a basket and I would wait 48-hours before I would handle those,” Larson said.

She’s part of Reclaim Idaho – the group that got Medicaid expansion on the ballot, and helped pass it here, two years ago.

But as the coronavirus continued to spread and health officials urged people to physically distance themselves from others, organizers decided to pull the plug on their latest campaign.

“It’s almost like calling your family members to inform them that another member of the family has died,” said Rebecca Schroeder, Reclaim Idaho’s executive director.

“I would rather, I think, just go out kicking and screaming and just lose the right way. You know? It is not how anyone wanted it to happen,” Schroeder said.

Ultimately, the health and safety of her group comes first, she said – especially because many of her 2,000 volunteers are older.

Credit James Dawson / Boise State Public Radio
Boise State Public Radio
Supporters of Proposition 2 to expand Medicaid in Idaho rallied at the state capitol in 2019, urging lawmakers to fully fund the program.

Reclaim Idaho had raised about $110,000 for the now shuttered campaign.

And it’s not just Idaho. It’s not a good time to be a ballot initiative organizer in any of the 24 states and Washington D.C. where they’re allowed, according to Josh Altic, who tracks ballot measures for the website Ballotpedia.

“A lot of the states have essentially either shut down signature gathering through stay-at-home orders or there’s no events and events are the bread and butter of petition drives,” Altic said.

Oklahoma did pause the clock on a deadline to gather signatures. But other states aren’t doing much to help out these campaigns so far.

Without any similar relief, campaigns have suspended signature gathering in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Michigan, Nebraska and Oregon.

Reclaim Idaho had asked the governor and state lawmakers here to allow voters to sign petitions online, but the idea was never taken up.

"I would rather, I think, just go out kicking and screaming and just lose the right way. You know? It is not how anyone wanted it to happen." -Rebecca Schroeder, Reclaim Idaho's executive director

That’s not a shocker to Altic. He points out there’s often friction between organizers and state lawmakers, since, in some cases, voters are overruling the legislative process.

“I suspect that there’s not going to be a whole lot of sympathy or a lot of treating this as sort of a political emergency,” he said.

Back in Sandpoint, Linda Larson says she and her fellow volunteers are “discouraged” and “demoralized” after putting in months of work to try to boost education funding in Idaho.

“If our legislators aren’t willing to solve it, then ok, fine, we’ll do this. But give us the tools to be able to do this,” Larson said. “That’s all we’re asking.”

If it were safe to collect signatures, she’d be back on the street immediately. Reclaim Idaho might revive the campaign in the future.

But for now, they’re pivoting to one of their original missions: using their vast volunteer network to help people sign up for Medicaid as the country’s economic outlook gets worse.

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!