Idaho Ballot Initiatives Could Be The Next Victim Of Coronavirus

Mar 16, 2020

Bars, restaurants and concert halls across the country are being shuttered to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. But the only way to get an initiative on the ballot in Idaho requires campaigners to come face to face with residents and ask for signatures of support – efforts that may be torpedoed as health concerns continue to rise.

Two years ago, signature gatherers with Reclaim Idaho walked mile after mile, knocking on doors to ask people to sign a petition to expand Medicaid coverage in the state.

The group’s newest initiative would raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations to help pay for education. It’s one of three active initiative campaigns in the state right now, including efforts to raise the minimum wage and legalize medical marijuana.

But with an April 30 deadline to turn in petitions, Reclaim Idaho’s executive director, Rebecca Schroeder, is asking state officials to let them collect signatures online to avoid spreading the coronavirus. Schroeder said she told volunteers to hang up their clipboards for now and to stay safe by following recommendations on social distancing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“A lot of our volunteers are in that at-risk group, maybe retirees or some folks have an underlying medical condition,” Schroeder said.

Such a move would require legislative approval to change state code.

Schroeder said verification checks could be made by a similar system that allows Idaho residents to register to vote online by providing a state identification card number.

At least one other state has taken steps to address concerns over ballot initiatives. Over the weekend, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) reduced the number of signatures candidates running for office needed to gather under that state’s declaration of emergency. 

Schroeder asserts Idaho law gives Gov. Brad Little (R) similar wide latitude to step in under these circumstances during times of emergency, a declaration Little signed on Friday.

“It would just be wrong to allow this to not let Idahoans exercise their constitutional rights,” she said.

But Marissa Morrison Hyer, a spokeswoman for Little’s office, said in a statement, “Idaho statute does not allow for the suspension of rules regarding the physical collection of signatures, even in times of emergency.”

As of last week, Reclaim Idaho had gathered more than half of the 55,000 signatures it needs, but still needs far more from residents outside Boise to qualify for the November election.

Clarification: This story misstated New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo lowered the signature threshold for ballot initiative campaigns to meet. Cuomo actually lowered the signature threshold candidates running for office had to meet and the story has been updated to reflect that.

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

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