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Bill would make it tougher to get measures on Idaho ballot

BOISE – In the wake of Idaho voters’ historic rejection of three school-reform laws in a November referendum, Idaho lawmakers on Monday introduced legislation to make it harder for initiatives or referenda to qualify for the state’s ballot.

The bill was introduced Monday morning in the leadership-dominated Senate State Affairs Committee at the request of lobbyist Russ Hendricks of the Idaho Farm Bureau; the measure’s sponsor is the committee’s chairman, Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa. It would require signatures from 6 percent of the residents of 22 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts before an initiative or referendum could qualify for the ballot.

“The bottom line is just to ensure that there’s broad support across the state for an issue before it qualifies on the ballot,” Hendricks said.

Idaho lawmakers amended the initiative and referendum law in 1997 to require signatures equal to at least 6 percent of the registered voters in at least 22 counties to qualify a measure for the ballot – a move widely thought to make it virtually impossible for a measure to qualify in the geographically spread-out state. The law was an attempt to ensure that such measures couldn’t qualify solely with signatures from Idaho’s biggest cities.

That was overturned as unconstitutional by the U.S. District Court, however, which said it unconstitutionally gave more say to rural residents than urban ones, violating the one-person, one-vote rule. In 2003, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.

Backers of the new legislation point out that while the 9th Circuit’s opinion rejected the “minimum number of counties” standard, it appeared to leave open the possibility of using a different geographic distribution requirement, such as legislative districts. So it proposes to require signatures from at least 6 percent of registered voters in at least 22 Idaho legislative districts. That could be an even bigger hurdle than the county rule; rather than half of Idaho’s 44 counties, it would require signatures from nearly two-thirds of Idaho’s legislative districts. The total number of signatures still would have to equal 6 percent of the registered voters in the state.

“I think it brings a balance between rural and urban interests in our state, as our legislative body has been redistricted to more urban areas based upon the population,” McKenzie said. “It would require broad support to get things on the ballot.”

Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, said he had “grave concerns” about the change, but didn’t oppose the motion to introduce the bill; that opens the way for a full hearing on the measure in the committee. Werk said he supported introduction of the bill “out of deference to the chairman,” and said he wished the committee granted such deference to any member proposing a bill.

But Werk said he plans to request an Idaho Attorney General’s opinion on whether the change would be constitutional.

“The people’s right to speak to their government needs to be as broad and open as we can possibly make it,” Werk said, noting that Democratic lawmakers plan to propose a slate of bills later this week to “enhance voter access” in Idaho elections.

John Thompson, Farm Bureau spokesman, said the farm group is concerned about animal cruelty initiatives proposed in other states by the Human Society of the United States aimed at restricting farming practices ranging from chicken cages to hog gestation crates, and that such measures could make Idaho’s ballot.

“These practices that they use have been used for a long time, and they’re what’s best for the animals,” Thompson said. “It’s in the farmer’s interest to keep those animals healthy and productive. And you have these outside groups coming in. … We want them to have to go out into rural areas just as much as they can stand in front of Costco in Boise and get soccer moms,” he said.

Thompson acknowledged that the measure also would affect other issues – like the historic school reform referenda in November, which marked the first time since the 1930s that Idaho voters have overturned a law passed by the Legislature. But he said that wasn’t his group’s motivation. “It’s mainly all directed towards these types of animal rights threats that are big threats to agriculture,” he said.

Through a coincidence of timing the bill was introduced on a state holiday - Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights Day. Werk called ballot access “a very, very critical right,” and said he was concerned about the message lawmakers were sending citizens with the bill. “The message that you’re sending is that you want to restrict their access, whether it’s on Human Rights Day or any other time,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, asked several questions about the proposal, and after the meeting, was studying the 9th Circuit decision. The reference to legislative districts appears to be “dicta,” he said, or a comment on a side issue that’s not binding as precedent; it’s preceded by a statement that the court rejects the argument.

Davis said it gives him “pause” to consider the bill just after the historic referendum vote, though he said he knows there’s been conversation about the possible change for several years.

“We have a constitutional right in Idaho that reserves to the people the initiative process,” Davis said. “I think it’s important for us to make sure that when we do so, we do so in an inclusive fashion. But at the same time, I do find value in the argument that one county shouldn’t get to decide everything that’s on the ballot. I think that’s what the Idaho Farm Bureau wants us to consider.”

McKenzie said, “The trends have been that the population has grown in the urban areas and from the rural areas. The issue that’s presented in this bill is what is the proper balance between those regions.”

McKenzie said he doesn’t yet have a hearing date for the bill, but it could be as soon as next week.