BOISE — A federal lawsuit challenging Idaho’s ballot initiative process as unconstitutional because it requires signatures from multiple legislative districts has been dismissed, potentially clearing the way for lawmakers to make the initiative process much more difficult.
Chief U.S. District Court Judge David C. Nye on Monday ruled that Idaho’s ballot initiative process does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause on making sure voters are equally represented.
A 2019 attempt by lawmakers to expand the number of legislative districts where signatures must be collected failed when Republican Gov. Brad Little vetoed the legislation amid fears a lawsuit could be filed, and a federal court would end up dictating the state’s initiative process.
A spokesman for Idaho Farm Bureau Federation said his organization is pleased that the lawsuit was dismissed. Farm Bureau backed a recent effort that would have taken Idaho’s ballot initiative requirements a step further, expanding the number of districts in which signatures would have to be collected.
“Farm Bureau supports requiring signatures from multiple areas in multiple counties,” the spokesman said. “We think it’s unfair for people backing initiatives to go just to Boise or Nampa and collect all of their signatures. We think residents from throughout Idaho should have a say before it gets on the ballot.”
Lawmakers now, however, could interpret Nye’s ruling as favorable and possibly revisit the topic.
“It would seem that, just thinking out loud, you could do no worse than what we have right now,” said Republican House Speaker Scott Bedke when told of the ruling. “I don’t think that the rural parts of the state are adequately represented in the signature collecting process.”
Ryan Isbelle, in the lawsuit filed in early 2019, contended that a law passed in 2013 requiring signatures from 6% of voters in 18 legislative districts violated the equal protection clause because it gave more weight to voters in some districts.
Before 2013, ballot initiatives required signatures from 6% of statewide voters, meaning signature gatherers could concentrate in highly populated areas.
Nye in his ruling cited U.S. Supreme Court and 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals precedent that says requiring signatures from legislative districts with equal populations is allowed.
“Yes, to a certain degree, some signatures may not ‘count’ in ultimately getting an initiative on the ballot,” Nye wrote, “but such a model does not violate a citizen’s constitutional rights, nor does it violate principles of fairness in voting.”
If the court were to strike down Idaho’s law, Nye wrote, “it would likely mean that those who wanted to place initiatives on the ballot would focus solely on the most populous areas of the state ... and leave less populous areas with little to no input on important issues.”
Isbelle, a beer delivery man in the Lewiston area who describes himself as a political junkie, said he didn’t know if he would appeal the ruling.
“I’m really demoralized today,” Isbelle said on Tuesday. “I just don’t understand the logic behind the ruling.”
Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney was the defendant in the lawsuit. His chief deputy, Chad Houck, said the office was too busy with Tuesday’s primary and hadn’t had time to review the ruling and so couldn’t comment.
The ballot initiative process in Idaho has been among the most contentious issues in the state in recent years.
The 2013 change signed into law by then-Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, a Republican, came a few months after voters casting ballots on three initiatives rejected sweeping changes to the state’s education system lawmakers approved in 2011.
It was the first time in nearly 80 years that voters used the initiative process to overturn laws passed by elected leaders.
Making the ballot initiative process tougher in 2013, lawmakers said, would prevent initiative backers from getting all or most of the signatures they needed from population centers.
Idaho is a conservative state with a Republican-dominated Legislature, but urban areas tend to be less conservative than rural areas.
Voters again used the initiative process in 2018, this time passing Medicaid expansion with 61% of the vote after years of inaction by state lawmakers.
Lawmakers in the House and Senate responded in 2019 by passing legislation, despite hours of heated testimony opposing it, making the initiative process significantly more difficult by upping the number of signatures and legislative districts required. Opponents complained it gave a handful of rural legislative districts veto power over the ballot initiative process.
But Little vetoed the two bills, citing specifically his concern that a federal judge might declare the laws unconstitutional and force a new system on the state.
The Farm & Ranch staff contributed to this report.