Idaho appeals ballot initiative ruling to U.S. Supreme Court

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho Gov. Brad Little has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to put on hold a district court order forcing the state to count online signatures for an initiative backers hope to get on the November ballot.

The Republican governor filed the appeal Tuesday after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week rejected his request to stay the order until the appeals court ruled on the merits of the case.

Idaho has never allowed electronic signatures for ballot initiatives, and contends it undermines the state’s election process.

The funding initiative seeks to raise $170 million for K-12 education by raising Idaho’s corporate tax rate and increasing taxes on individuals making $250,000 or more annually.

Reclaim Idaho, a group that backs initiatives, in the lawsuit filed last month said that Little’s statewide stay-at-home order in late March because of the coronavirus pandemic didn’t include exceptions for ballot initiative signature gathering.

The group in the lawsuit against Little and Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, also a Republican, said that they violated the First Amendment-protected process of signature gathering, a form of political speech.

Little issued an emergency declaration on March 13 after the virus was confirmed in the state and then on March 25 a stay-at-home order as the virus appeared to be spreading out of control. The order was later extended to April 30 — the last day allowed for collecting ballot initiative signatures.

U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill late last month agreed with Reclaim Idaho and ordered the state to choose between accepting online signatures or simply putting the education funding initiative on the November ballot. When Idaho didn’t respond, Winmill ordered the state to collect online signatures or allow Reclaim Idaho to do so.

A 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel last week on a 2-1 vote rejected Little’s request to stay the order. He has now appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The district court’s orders have eviscerated the State’s legislatively enacted procedures for ensuring voter integrity and for balancing the voters’ voices throughout the state and has fundamentally altered and rewritten the State’s initiative and election procedures,” the Idaho attorney general’s office wrote in the filing.

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan is handling the request. It’s not clear when the court will make a ruling.

Meanwhile, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has set an expedited schedule to hear the case, and it could issue a ruling in August.

As it currently stands, Reclaim Idaho has until Aug. 26 to collect about 57,000 signatures. The group had already collected 33,000 signatures before stopping the effort when the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Idaho and it became unsafe to send signature-gatherers into communities.

Jeremy Gugino, a spokesman for Reclaim Idaho, said Wednesday that the group had collected more than 5,000 online signatures since starting that effort Monday. The group must also collect a minimum number of signatures in 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts, and Gugino said the group has met or is close to meeting that goal in eight districts.

“The reaction to signing the petition online has been overwhelming,” he said. “That’s not really unexpected. There was a ton of enthusiasm for this before COVID-19.”