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Idaho Senate OKs bill to make ballot initiatives tougher

March 1, 2021 GMT

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Senate on Monday approved legislation to make it more difficult to get initiatives or referendums on ballots in a measure with urban vs. rural overtones.

Senators voted 26-9 to send to the House the measure that backers say is needed to give rural voters more say in the process, noting the state is growing rapidly especially in urban areas.

Opponents argued the measure violates the Idaho Constitution because it makes getting initiatives on ballots nearly impossible, giving a single district veto power.

Current rules require signatures from 6% of registered voters in each of 18 districts in 18 months, plus a number of signatures that equals 6% or all registered voters in the state.

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The proposed law would change that to requiring 6% of registered voters in all 35 Idaho legislative districts in 18 months.

Backers of the bill said that under current rules, signature gatherers could get all the signatures they need in the 18 districts in just a handful of counties that contain urban areas.

“There has been concern that rural voters would have an unfair say in matters of questions to be put on the ballot,” said Republican Sen. Kelly Anthon in arguing for the measure. “I would submit to you, senators, that as of today, your urban voters have an unfair advantage.”

He said requiring signatures from every district would “make sure that every corner of this state gets to weigh in on what questions go on the ballot.”

Democratic Minority Leader Michelle Stennett said that initiatives wouldn’t even get to the ballot under the proposed plan.

“If 34 districts gather enough signatures, but one doesn’t, this bill gives a veto power to the one district and no voice to the rest,” she said.

She also noted that rural Idaho is represented well in Idaho politics with Republican Gov. Brad Little, Secretary of State Lawerence Denney and almost all the leaders in the House and Senate coming from rural areas.

“The argument that rural districts are underrepresented is simply false,” she said.

Voter-driven ballot initiatives, which act as a check on the Legislature, have become a major focus in the state in recent years. After years of inaction by Republican lawmakers, 62% of Idaho voters approved an initiative expanding Medicaid in 2018.

That’s been the only successful ballot initiative since the current rules were put in place in 2013. Lawmakers toughened the process that year after voters by referendum overturned laws involving education reform.

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In response to Medicaid expansion, Republicans in the House and Senate in 2019 tried to make the initiative process nearly impossible so they could head off future measures such as raising the minimum wage and legalizing marijuana.

But Little vetoed the two bills, citing concerns that a federal court could rule such restrictions unconstitutional and dictate the state’s initiative process. His office has declined to comment on the current legislation.

A federal court last summer dismissed a lawsuit challenging Idaho’s current ballot initiative requirements. That potentially means that if the ballot initiative process is made tougher with the proposed new law and is challenged in court, a loss could simply mean a fallback to current requirements.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Steve Vick, tried to frame the proposed law changing the requirements as neither favoring rural or urban voters.

“This is not intended to pit rural Idahoans against urban Idahoans, it’s to do exactly the opposite,” he said. “This is to make it so we’re all on the same page to get a ballot initiative on the ballot and that we’re all required to work together.”

But during the debate on the Senate floor, many lawmakers didn’t adopt that view.

“We have an increase in population that no one would have predicted coming into Idaho,” said Republican Sen. Mary Souza. “For the most part, a huge percentage of them are settling in the urban areas, which gives urban voters, signers on the initiative, even more concentration and decreases the number of other districts what would need to be included.”

Democratic Sen. Grant Burgoyne, responding to arguments that many other states don’t have an initiative process, noted those states don’t have the initiative process spelled out in their constitution as Idaho does.

“The initiative right is a constitutional right in this state of the people; it’s just a shame that so many states don’t have it,” he said. “We need to defend the right of the initiative, not say, ‘Well, 16 states don’t have it so it’s not that important.’”

Last month, the Idaho secretary of state’s office approved signature-gathering by a group that wants a medical marijuana legalization initiative put on the ballot in November 2022.