BOISE – Some Idaho lawmakers want to make it harder for citizen initiatives to qualify for state ballots.
The move by Idaho state Senate Republican leaders happened Monday in the wake of Idaho voters’ rejection of three school-reform laws last November.
Idaho Farm Bureau lobbyist Russ Hendricks requested the legislation from the Senate State Affairs Committee, which is dominated by Republican leaders.
Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, is the committee chairman and sponsored the measure. The legislation 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 effort was overturned in U.S. District Court as unconstitutional for giving more say to rural residents than urban residents. It violated the one-person, one-vote rule.
In 2003, the 9th U.S. Circuit 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.
“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 Humane 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 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.