BOISE – The backers of a proposed ballot initiative to increase Idaho’s public education funding are suing the state in federal court, contending emergency orders during the coronavirus pandemic unconstitutionally limited their ability to collect signatures.
Reclaim Idaho filed the lawsuit against Gov. Brad Little and Secretary of State Lawerence Denney on Monday, asking a federal judge to grant a temporary 48-day extension to collect signatures and allow them to collect the signatures electronically.
The group said the governor’s statewide stay-home order didn’t include any exceptions for the First Amendment-protected process of signature gathering, a form of political speech.
Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and Denney declined to comment on the lawsuit because it is pending in court. Little didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Reclaim Idaho announced in March that it was suspending signature gathering operations for its Invest in Idaho initiative as the coronavirus took hold in Idaho.
Gathering signatures requires face-to-face campaigning, and the group said that contact presented serious health risks to volunteers and citizens.
Just a few days later, Little issued a statewide stay-home order barring activities considered “nonessential,” like gathering signatures.
The initiative would bring in $170 million for K-12 education by raising Idaho’s corporate tax rate and increasing taxes on individuals making $250,000 a year or higher.
At the time the group said it had gathered more than half of the roughly 55,000 signatures needed ahead of the April 30 deadline to get the initiative on the November ballot and was close to meeting other requirements on how many signatures must be collected from different legislative districts.
“We don’t object to the governor’s actions to protect public health,” Reclaim Idaho co-founder Luke Mayville wrote Monday on Twitter. “But the governor and secretary of state have a responsibility to provide alternative, safe means for collecting signatures during a deadly pandemic.”
In the lawsuit, Reclaim Idaho notes that electronic signature gathering is commonly used for mortgages, loans and even tax returns. Idaho courts accept electronic signatures, and the state has a law that says electronic signatures are legally binding.
Reclaim Idaho is asking for an additional 48 days – the amount of time signature gatherers were unable to do so during the pandemic – to continue collecting signatures in hopes of getting the Invest in Idaho initiative on the November ballot.
Signatures collected electronically would be done through a company that banks and other institutions use for legal documents. If granted, the changes wouldn’t alter state law, but would be a one-time fix for the unique situation presented by the pandemic, the group contended.
“There can be no doubt that plaintiffs’ ability to engage in ‘one-on-one communication’ with voters was restricted from mid-March through April of 2020,” attorneys Deborah Ferguson and Craig Durham wrote on behalf of the group. “But more to the point, the state’s orders in this case severely burdened their ability to get this initiative on the ballot.”
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