A bill recently introduced before the Idaho Legislature to greatly restrict Idaho’s citizen initiative process would in reality break a long-standing Idaho tradition allowing voters to directly influence how we govern ourselves. The bill is antidemocratic.
On February 17, a record number of Idaho citizens attempted to testify before the Senate State Affairs Committee. More than 100 were blocked from testifying, necessitating a continuation hearing on February 19. Those who testified wanted to make their views known about yet another attempt to negate our ability to organize a citizens-led initiative.
What is it about the initiative process that threatens the current political establishment? A citizen initiative arises out of dissatisfaction with the way things are. For example, in 2018, a group calling itself Reclaim Idaho allied itself with health providers and others in the state to expand Medicaid. They did so in direct response to the legislature’s six-year-long refusal to expand coverage. A total of 61% of Idahoans agreed and passed Proposition 2 to expand Medicaid coverage to some 90,000 uninsured Idahoans.
How did the legislature respond? In 2019, it narrowly passed two bills significantly tightening an already herculean undertaking. Fortunately, the governor vetoed both bills. Fast forward to 2021 with Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, raising the issue again with a bill that seeks to make the initiative process all but impossible to complete. The bill would require 6% of Idaho’s registered voters statewide and 6% of the voters in each of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts to sign the petition. By contrast, Utah only requires 8% of registered voters statewide to sign a petition, and Montana requires 10% statewide.
Once a petition makes it onto the ballot, it still must be approved by most Idaho voters. This has only happened twice in the last 20 years. Not exactly something that happens on a regular basis.
Sen. Vick’s proposal has an emergency clause requiring immediate implementation. Usually, Idaho laws take effect on July 1. This is instructive for it points to great concern on the part of lawmakers over the potential impact of any future initiative.
Idaho is changing. Our electorate grows increasingly diverse as new residents move into the state and new generations take their place as voters. The initiative process allows any citizen to take up a cause and bring it before the people. Throttling this right today restricts it for the future. The right of citizens to challenge their legislature was enshrined in the Idaho Constitution in 1912. Making it virtually impossible to bring one before the people abrogates this protection.
In a book called H”ow Democracies Die,” Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky describe what they call “the guardrails of democracy.” These are soft, unwritten rules of conduct that protect constitutions. Sen. Vick’s proposal would break one of these guardrails. Initiatives would still be technically legal, but for all intents and purposes out of reach. They honor the letter of the constitution but quench its spirit.
Idahoans, speak up for the initiative process. It encourages civic action, empowers individuals, and makes our system more democratic.