BOISE — Just three hours in, Idaho’s first online signature drive for a voter initiative already had gathered 1,500 signatures on Monday morning.
“We just launched it today,” Luke Mayville, founder of Reclaim Idaho, said Monday. “The federal court ordered us to set up a system for collecting electronic signatures that meets the highest industry standard, and that’s exactly what we’ve done.”
The group is gathering signatures online using DocuSign, the company that authenticates electronic signatures for real estate transactions around the world and that is widely used in Idaho.
Gov. Brad Little and Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney continue to press legal appeals against Reclaim Idaho’s move, arguing that the ballot drive has already missed its April 30 deadline for gathering signatures, after the statewide shutdown order for the coronavirus halted it in March. The shutdown order didn’t lift until the same day as the signature deadline. Little and Denney argue that allowing any changes to the process, including for safety during the pandemic, would disrupt Idaho’s election laws.
A federal judge disagreed, and ordered signature gathering to continue online for another 48 days, the number of days the group lost as of the shutdown. Mayville said after some start-up time, it began gathering signatures with just 44 of those days remaining.
After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit rejected the state’s emergency motion for a stay on Thursday, Little said in a statement, “We intend to appeal this decision and to seek a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court. We will continue our efforts to preserve the integrity of Idaho’s duly enacted laws and to prevent the disruption to our upcoming elections that this decision will cause.”
The U.S. District Court in Idaho had previously also rejected a motion from the state for a stay, to keep the ballot drive from restarting.
Reclaim Idaho, the same volunteer group that successfully got the Medicaid expansion initiative on the Idaho ballot in 2018, when voters approved it by more than 61% of the vote, is now pressing a school funding initiative. Its “Invest in Idaho” initiative proposes to raise income tax rates on corporations and the wealthy by 3 percentage points to generate $170 million a year for public schools, reducing the need for local supplemental property tax levies. It’s the exact opposite of what Idaho lawmakers have been doing in recent years; they’ve been gradually lowering both the individual and corporate income tax rates, saying the moves provide tax relief and make Idaho more competitive, as more and more Idaho school districts have begun relying on frequent, voter-approved supplemental levies to fund basic school operations, from teachers to textbooks.
Mayville said, “It is unfortunate that the state is unwilling to simply comply with a very reasonable court order … and now the governor and the secretary of state appear determined to block our electronic signature gathering drive. It’s especially surprising, given that we’re facing what could be the deepest cuts to education in a generation.”
Last week, the Little Administration announced that though the state had ended its fiscal year June 30 with a multimillion-dollar surplus, it was ordering budget cuts of 5% from the coming year’s budget, including from public schools, in anticipation of shortfalls as the pandemic continues to impact the state’s economy. The K-12 public schools’ share of the cuts would come to roughly $99 million of the overall $200 million in cuts, Idaho Education News reported, and the administration has outlined such steps as a one-year freeze of the teacher “career ladder” that funds pay raises — and was a signature issue for Little in the last legislative session — and a $10 million cut in state funding for classroom technology.
Mayville, who grew up in Sandpoint and went on earn advanced degrees, teach political science at Columbia University and author a book about President John Adams, said, “We are reactivating teams of volunteers all across the state, and we are calling on them to do everything they can to get the word out about the electronic signature drive.”
“They’ll be writing letters to the editor, they’ll be sharing the petition on social media,” he said. “They won’t be talking with people face to face, but they will be going around in their communities and posting fliers with the information. There are many ways for volunteers to be active participants in this process.”
The group had collected roughly half the signatures it needed to qualify the measure for the November ballot when it ceased operations for the shutdown. To make the November 2020 ballot, the initiative would need signatures from 6% of registered voters statewide, or 55,057, along with those of 6% of registered voters in each of 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts. Already, it has met that bar in five legislative districts, three in Ada County and two in North Idaho. Several other districts are very close, Mayville said, including in the Caldwell area and in Teton County in southeastern Idaho.
At the same time that it rejected the state’s emergency motion for a stay last week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals set an expedited schedule to hear the merits of the case, with briefs from both sides due in the coming weeks and oral arguments scheduled for early August.
“I am pleased that the 9th Circuit has chosen to expedite this, and we feel confident that we’ll get a ruling on the merits,” said Deborah Ferguson, the attorney whose Boise firm, Ferguson-Durham, is representing Reclaim Idaho pro-bono, or without charge.
Mayville said he’s not advocating turning all future voter initiative drives electronic. “We only intend electronic signature-gathering to be a temporary solution to an extraordinary crisis,” he said. “We agree that there is civic value in face-to-face signature gathering. But the simple fact is that face-to-face signature gathering is not possible under the conditions of a once-in-a-century pandemic. The system that we’ve proposed only modifies one very limited aspect of the ballot initiative process. It does not in any way undermine our system of voting, or our broader process of elections.”
If the signature drive meets its mark, and the courts don’t block it, that would only qualify the school funding initiative for the November ballot. It then would be up to Idaho voters to vote it up or down.