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Who is responsible for the voter advisory on the ballot?

Thomas Hawk

Idaho Matters is answering your questions about voting in the 2022 midterm elections. This week, listeners asked us about the advisory question on this year's ballot.

  1. Who is responsible for the Voter Advisory on the ballot?
  2. How did it get on the ballot especially when the legislature is trying to eliminate voter initiatives?
  3. The question mixes several distinctly different topics. Is information available?

We talked with Boise State Public Radio Reporter James Dawson and Clark Corbin with the Idaho Capital Sun to help us answer these questions.

What is a voter advisory?

Voter advisories are a little confusing, but the most important thing to know is this is a non-binding advisory question. Whichever way people vote, it is not going to pass or repeal anything.

The main question it's asking is whether or not Idahoans approve or disapprove of the special session law, House Bill 1, that was passed in September. The bill invested over $410 million in education spending and provided another rebate check to residents who filed income taxes in Idaho in 2020 and 2021.

Whichever way people vote, it's not going to have any effect on what has already taken place. However, it could inform what might happen in the future and how that money is allocated.

What is the voter advisory question asking?

As a voter, the ballot will ask you whether you approve or disapprove. This is the language you will see on the ballot:

    Do you approve or disapprove of the state of Idaho using the record budget surplus to refund $500 million back to hardworking Idaho taxpayers, cut ongoing income taxes by more than $150 Million, and put more money in our classrooms by increasing education and student funding by a record $410 million? Your approval of this effort would combat historic inflation by returning money to the taxpayers, creating a simple flat tax and making the single largest investment in public education in Idaho history.

How often do we see advisory votes on the ballot? 

Advisory questions are very rare. In the past 28 years, from 1994 to 2022, there were only two times when there were advisory questions on the ballot.

The question is asking about a few different things, why combine them into one question?

There's no real answer for the phrasing specifically, aside from the fact that it covers what the legislature and Gov. Brad Little accomplished in passing House Bill 1 in September.

Some lawmakers wondered why they were voting on a bill that had so many different topics, which was argued that it could be unconstitutional in Idaho because you have to have a single subject on a bill.

When it comes to why the question contains so many things; tax cuts, rebates and more school funding, those are all very popular things, not just in Idaho, but across the country. If people overwhelmingly say, yes, we approve of this, then they have more ground to say, look at the great job we did back in the special session and this is what you can look forward to in the coming years after this election.

How did the question get on the ballot?

The question is part of House Bill 1 from the special session. On page 14 of the bill text, it said this advisory question will be put on the November ballot.

Gov. Little's press secretary said the language was agreed upon between the governor's office and the legislators who co-sponsored the law in the weeks leading up to the September special session.

Is the language used in the advisory question neutral?

Corbin spoke with political scientist David Adler and some other people about the language in the advisory question, which uses phrases like “hardworking Idaho taxpayers,” “record budget surplus,” and “historic inflation,” – they thought this wasn't neutral language, but rather persuasive language intended to sway a voter into supporting it.

"Why wouldn't I support giving the hard-working Idaho taxpayers their money back? Why wouldn't I support a record increase in education funding?" are questions some might have after reading the language of the advisory question.

There's some concern if the legislature was really interested in how the public thought about this, maybe the language should be more neutral and maybe it should have been written by an outside third party, say, someone from the attorney general's office or something like that.

But that did not happen here, it was written by the people who wrote and supported the law itself and there are people who are saying it appears to be persuasive language as opposed to neutral language.

Why is the question on the ballot, especially when lawmakers have been making it harder to get citizen initiatives on the ballot? 

The voter advisory is different than a citizen's ballot initiative because citizens are not involved at all – the voter advisory came straight from the legislature and the governor's office. A citizen's ballot initiative is essentially the people of Idaho bypassing the legislature to write their own laws, like in the 2018 election when Idaho voters overwhelmingly signed-off on expanding Medicaid coverage to the state’s working poor.

"I think the legislature is sort of guarding its own power when they crack down on the initiative process and pass laws that make it more complicated and difficult to qualify an initiative for the ballot," said Clark. "So [the advisory question is] seemingly a similar-type thing but the source is totally different. This goes around the citizens. They're not involved whatsoever. And so I think one way to look at that would be the legislature wanting to guard its power."

What will be done with the results of this advisory question?

It's not necessarily known what will be done with the results, but the stakes seem fairly low. We do know there is going to be a lot of changes in the Idaho legislature, with at least 40 legislators out of 105 being new.

If 60% or more of voters say yes, we approve of this, then that's something legislators can point to during budget negotiations and floor debates. With that, they can say we'll push back on your next election cycle if there is any action for further budget cuts or repealing education funding.

Bottom line: The advisory question really holds no power  

Yes, it's non-binding and if you don't feel comfortable with it, just like anything else on the ballot, you can leave it blank or vote however you feel. Officially, whichever way Idahoans vote, nothing will happen.

This project is part of the work of America Amplified, an initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to support community engagement journalism in public media.

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