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Eye On Boise

Major campaign finance reform initiative falls short, won’t be on ballot

Holli Woodings (Betsy Z. Russell)
Holli Woodings (Betsy Z. Russell)

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By Betsy Z. Russell

BOISE - A sweeping campaign finance reform initiative that promised to change the role of money in politics in Idaho has fallen short of the number of verified signatures needed, and won’t be on the November ballot.

That’s even though backers collected roughly 79,000 signatures, when just 47,623 valid ones were required. But enough were disqualified – largely for not having current addresses – to fall close to 5,000 signatures short.

“The county clerks did a really fantastic job being diligent about that review, and they were great to work with,” said Holli Woodings, chair of the initiative campaign. “But we just didn’t have enough valid signatures.”

No initiative has qualified for the Idaho ballot since state lawmakers in 2013 imposed the requirement to get 6 percent of registered voters’ signatures from each of at least 18 of the state’s 35 legislative districts. Gov. Butch Otter signed that bill into law just five months after Idaho voters overwhelmingly supported three referendum measures to overturn the “Students Come First” school reform laws championed by Otter and then-state schools Superintendent Tom Luna; the 18-legislative-districts rule applies to both initiatives and referenda. The historic referenda votes marked the first time Idaho voters had overturned laws passed by the Legislature since the 1930s.

But the campaign finance initiative didn’t even get to the point of checking for the legislative-district distribution, because it didn’t reach the total number of verified signatures required. “The geographic dispersement wasn’t as much of an issue as we had maybe originally thought,” Woodings said. “It does take a lot of coordination to make sure that you’re sort of on track for those numbers, but I think that really the poison pill in this was the fact that Idahoans still consider themselves registered voters when they’ve moved. It’s just kind of plain and simple.”

Typically, in the past, about 40 percent of signatures gathered on initiative petitions have been disqualified, largely because the signer either wasn’t registered to vote, or had moved since they last registered, meaning their current address listed on the petition didn’t match current voter registration records. Organizers are still double-checking the final tallies, but it appears that the percentage disqualified for this initiative drive was even higher – around 46 percent.

Chief Deputy Idaho Secretary of State Tim Hurst said he heard from counties that wrong addresses were the top reason for disqualifying signatures on the petitions, “and the main reason for that was that people have moved and not re-registered. The problem we have in Idaho, with election day registration, is that many people know that they can re-register on election day, so they don’t go in beforehand to make the change.”

But if their signature on a petition doesn’t match their current voter registration record, they’re not qualified electors – and their signatures don’t count. “They’re technically not a qualified elector and not a registered voter, if they move from one address to another address,” without updating their voter registration, Hurst said. That’s even if the voter has just moved within the same voting district. “Even the same apartment complex, just move two apartments down – it’s a different address,” he said.

Hollings said other states don’t have that rule. “As long as you still live within the same county, you’re still considered registered, but that’s not the case in Idaho statute,” she said.

The initiative sought to make extensive changes in the role of money in Idaho politics, from strict restrictions on campaign contributions from those holding or seeking big state contracts, to banning pricey lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, cutting contribution limits and doubling penalties for violations. If passed, it would have given Idaho its first “revolving door” law banning paid lobbying within one year after leaving public office; forbidden all lobbyist gifts to state lawmakers of more than $50 in a year, including meals, entertainment and lodging; and required all campaign finance reports to be submitted electronically and posted online immediately in machine-readable, searchable form; among other changes.

Woodings pointed to an Idaho poll conducted by independent Utah pollster Dan Jones & Associates, released last Sunday, that showed 79 percent support for changes like those in the initiative.

“It was their intent to sign this petition,” she said, “but their signature was rejected. I think that now that we know that this is an important issue to Idahoans, we’ll keep on with this work. I’m not sure what form that’s going to take in the future, but I think it’s an important issue and something that people really care about.”

Woodings said she’s spoken with Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney about possibly proposing some of the measure’s proposals as legislative changes next year. “But not all of them would be things that would be easy to pass through the Legislature,” she said, “so I think that’s why the citizen initiative process is so very important, so that people can get the policies that they want to see in place in place, even if they’re maybe against the interests of well-connected politicians.”

A former Democratic state representative from Boise and a former unsuccessful candidate for Idaho Secretary of State in 2014, Woodings said the initiative’s proposed ban on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers alone would be “a huge change,” ending practices like lawmakers attending a summer golf tournament-fundraiser being “put up in expensive hotels and taken to fancy dinners” by lobbyists.

Woodings’ group raised $229,543 in contributions, spent $188,468 on its signature-gathering drive, and had $41,075 on hand at the close of the post-primary election reporting period with $6,211 in debt. Its biggest contributions came from a half-dozen out-of-state individuals who each gave at least $20,000; the campaign also received $25,000 from End Citizens United-Federal, a political action committee in Washington, D.C. Its biggest in-state donation was $5,000 from a Sandpoint couple.

“They’re funders who really believe in this issue, and they’re people who are working all over the country on this particular issue because it’s one that is near and dear to them,” she said. “The hard thing about trying to get something on the ballot is that it costs money.”

The initiative was one of five being run in states around the nation, in coordination with Every Voice, a Washington, D.C. organization founded about 20 years ago that focuses on campaign finance reform, and works, according to its website, to “give everyday people a bigger voice in politics.”

Other proposed Idaho initiatives this year to legalize medical marijuana and decriminalize marijuana possession; reduce the sales tax rate while broadening the base, including to services; limit campaign contributions to only constituents of the office sought; and raise the cigarette tax to fund cuts in college tuition; all stopped circulating after falling well short of the required number of signatures.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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