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Idaho governor signs bill making ballot measures tougher

April 17, 2021 GMT

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho Gov. Brad Little on Saturday signed legislation making it more difficult to get initiatives or referendums on ballots in what is widely seen as an attempt to stop a medical marijuana initiative and other left-leaning causes in the conservative state.

The Republican governor signed into law the measure backers said is needed because the current process favors urban voters. Opponents said the measure would make it nearly impossible to get initiatives on ballots. Little in his letter to lawmakers approving the bill sided with those who worry urban voters have too much say in the initiative process.

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The legislation contained an emergency clause to immediately put the new law into effect with Little’s signature. Lawsuits to overturn the new law are expected in state and federal courts.

It wasn’t immediately clear how the new law will affect the medical marijuana initiative whose backers in February received the OK from the Idaho secretary of state’s office to collect signatures under the old rules to get the measure on the ballot in November 2022.

Those previous rules required signatures from 6% of registered voters in each of 18 legislative districts in 18 months. The new law requires 6% of registered voters in all 35 Idaho districts in 18 months. The overall number of signatures needed to get an initiative on the ballot remains the same, but they will need to be collected from a much wider area without as much focus on urban centers.

The bill “has a laudable goal of ensuring that initiatives have a minimum level of support throughout all of Idaho before they are placed on the ballot,” Little wrote in a letter to lawmakers addressed to Republican Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin.

Democratic House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel said she was disappointed Little signed the bill limiting voter-backed initiatives after earlier in the week announcing vetoes of two bills seeking to limit his power.

“It is beyond disappointing that he would choose to use his veto power only to protect his own executive power and not to protect the power of the people,” she said. “The people of Idaho really only have one mechanism to pass laws when their government won’t listen to them.”

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.

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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.

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.

Little vetoed that legislation out of concern a federal court might overturn the law and dictate Idaho’s initiative process.

However, there have been several significant federal court rulings since those 2019 vetoes.

A federal judge in June 2020 dismissed a lawsuit challenging Idaho’s ballot initiative process at the time as unconstitutional because it required signatures from multiple legislative districts. That ruling appeared to clear the way for lawmakers to make the initiative process more difficult without fear of losing what’s already in place.

Also last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an Idaho group must stop collecting online signatures for an education funding initiative for that November’s ballot. In that case, the court ruled in favor of Little’s request that a district court’s order allowing online signatures be stayed until the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case and made a ruling. The case was ultimately dismissed with no decision after the November election came and went.

Little, in his letter to lawmakers, said the nation’s top court in that case recognized a split among circuit courts involving the initiative process and the First Amendment that could lead to overturning precedent in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees Idaho, if Idaho’s new ballot initiative process is challenged.

The U.S. Supreme Court now has a conservative 6-3 majority after former President Donald Trump appointed three justices.

“I expect the federal courts may be called to determine whether Senate Bill 1110 (the ballot initiative bill) violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” Little wrote to lawmakers. “Yet, there is good cause to believe the neutral regulations in this bill are constitutionally permissible.”

Reclaim Idaho, a group that successfully got the Medicaid expansion on the ballot, disagreed.

“Clearly, this anti-initiative legislation is unconstitutional,” Luke Mayville, the group’s co-founder, said in a statement. “It makes it virtually impossible for everyday citizens to exercise their initiative rights. This fight is far from over, and we now look to the courts to uphold the Idaho Constitution.”

Idaho residents in 1912 adopted two constitutional amendments approving the initiative and referendum process. But they told lawmakers to figure out the details. Opponents of the new ballot initiative process said that doesn’t mean lawmakers are allowed to make the initiative and referendum process impossible.

Five former Idaho attorneys general in a letter to House lawmakers before the House approved the measure and Little signed it said there was no basis for nullifying the initiative process with the ballot initiative bill that has now been signed into law.