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Wed., Jan. 23, 2013

Editorial: Does Idaho really have an initiative problem?

Before Idaho legislators tamper with something as fundamental as access to the ballot for citizen initiatives, they ought to answer a simple question: What’s the problem?

Since 2000, citizens have made 54 attempts to bring an initiative to the ballot, and succeeded four times, according to the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office. Two of those initiatives passed. Last fall, three referenda were on the ballot, and they successfully overturned education-related laws adopted by the Legislature. Before that, a grand total of four attempts to veto legislation had made it to the ballot. Only one succeeded – in 1935.

And yet, the Idaho Senate’s Republican leadership wants to make it even more difficult for citizens to gain ballot access. Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, is sponsoring a bill that would require sponsors to cover more of the state in their efforts to acquire the necessary signatures. Currently, signature gatherers need 6 percent of registered voters. The bill would force them to achieve that percentage in at least 22 of the state’s 35 legislative districts. The idea is to make sure gatherers don’t concentrate their efforts in the larger cities.

The Legislature tried a similar tactic in 1997, requiring the signatures be gathered in 22 of the state’s 44 counties. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down that law, ruling that it gave more say to rural voters than urban ones. Even back then, the state had not faced an avalanche of initiatives – just 24 on the ballot, with 12 passing, since the state amended its constitution in 1912 to allow for them.

The Farm Bureau lobbied for the 1997 change, and it’s spearheading this one, too. This time it fears that out-of-state groups could pass animal rights measures that could threaten agricultural interests.

“We want them to have to go out into rural areas just as much as they can stand at Costco in Boise and get soccer moms,” said Farm Bureau spokesman John Thompson.

That’s surely a smart political move, but it isn’t wise to change an entire election process to placate a single interest, no matter how well-regarded it may be. If McKenzie’s bill were already law, it would’ve made it more difficult for the trio of just-passed education propositions to make it to the ballot. This consequence alone calls into question the intentions of Senate leadership. Are they responding to being rebuked?

The bill’s proponents would have a stronger argument if the process were being abused. But so far, they’re acting on speculation. And they can’t say the process is overused, because only a handful of initiatives have made it to the ballot since 2000. Meanwhile, in Washington state, voters have faced more than 30 measures in the same time span.

Idahoans had to amend the state constitution to gain the right to place initiatives and referenda on the ballot. That was a high hurdle. Legislators ought to respect the intent of that effort, not reset the barrier.

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