A federal judge has ruled Idaho must either allow a ballot initiative campaign to collect signatures electronically, or include the initiative on the general election ballot in November.
Reclaim Idaho, the group behind the successful Medicaid expansion initiative in 2018, sued the state earlier this month after Gov. Brad Little and Secretary of State Lawerence Denney declined to allow it to collect signatures online amid a global pandemic.
Its latest campaign would raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations to boost education funding in Idaho by $170 million annually.
Judge Lynn Winmill is giving the state until Friday afternoon to make its choice.
Ruling from the bench during the online court hearing, Winmill commended Little and Denney for their response to the pandemic and their obligation to enforce the laws of the state.
“But in this case, doing so brought them in conflict with the plaintiff’s First Amendment rights,” he said.
A full written opinion will be released at a later date.
“This court decision is a major victory for the kids of Idaho, for the working families of Idaho who want to give their kids a chance to succeed and, maybe more than anything, this decision is a major victory for the constitutional right of every Idaho citizen to petition their government,” said Luke Mayville, a co-founder of Reclaim Idaho.
But the group won’t have much time to celebrate. Little and Denney said they plan to appeal the ruling, calling the decision “a surprising exercise of judicial activism.
Reclaim Idaho said it had collected roughly 30,000 signatures out of the 55,000 it needed to qualify the initiative for the ballot by mid-March when the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping through the United States. The deadline to turn in those signatures was in April.
The group asked both the secretary of state’s office and the governor’s office to make an exception in unprecedented times to allow for online signature gathering when collecting them in-person risked spreading the virus.
Each of them responded that doing so was outside the bounds of the law set by the Idaho legislature, though both bent those regulations while running Idaho’s first all absentee ballot primary this spring.
An attempt to push a bill through the state legislature, which was still convened in March, also failed.
The group eventually suspended its campaign to protect its volunteers – many of whom are older and vulnerable to COVID-19, if they contract it.
Deborah Ferguson, an attorney representing Reclaim Idaho, said the group applauded Little’s decision to issue his stay at home order.
“But our democracy allows these core fundamental rights regardless of a public health emergency,” Ferguson said.
Deputy Attorney General Robert Berry unsuccessfully argued that the group could’ve avoided this had it taken advantage of the full 18 months Idaho law gives ballot initiative campaigns to collect signatures.
“I don’t think the constitution requires individuals exercising their First Amendment Rights to be precluded from procrastination,” Winmill said, adding that Reclaim Idaho had demonstrated success in the past and was on a positive trajectory to meet state requirements.
The victory is part of a mixed record nationally when it comes to ballot initiative campaigns pushing back against state election laws during the pandemic.
Last month, a panel of 6th Circuit Court of Appeals judges temporarily blocked a lower court ruling allowing a campaign in Ohio to collect signatures online. A federal judge in North Dakota also rejected a similar lawsuit.
But the Arkansas Supreme Court allowed the practice after a ballot initiative group there sued. A federal court also recently upheld Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’s actions to suspend state laws prohibiting online signature gathering.
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