Freedom of Speech

"Freedom of Speech" by Norman Rockwell

A healthy democratic republic requires the active participation of informed citizens. A particularly important event for such citizens to take part in is scheduled this week.

Convened by Reclaim Idaho, which made its entrance into Idaho politics by organizing a vast network of volunteers to get Medicaid expansion on the ballot after years of can-kicking in the Legislature, a town-hall-style debate will be held this week to discuss changes to the ballot initiative process, which some lawmakers unsuccessfully attempted to gut earlier this year.

Your rights are at stake, and you should show up to defend them.

A few potential reforms appear to be reasonable, especially ending pay-per-signature compensation for paid signature gatherers. If a signature gatherer’s basis for pay is simply how many signatures they turn in, the case can be made that they would be incentivized to use unethical or deceptive tactics to boost their pay. If signature gatherers are paid by the hour, for example, those incentives are reduced considerably.

Other proposals worth consideration would be requirements that paid signature gatherers wear clearly identifying badges, or certain regulations on who can serve as a paid signature gatherer, for example, limiting it to Idaho residents.

But most other proposals that have been floated are beyond the pale, and they constitute an attack on the right of the people to propose and vote on legislation — a power the Idaho Constitution declares one of the natural or God-given rights which the government is formed in order to protect, not a power that is delegated to the government. This is what it means when the Idaho Constitution says: “t{span}he people reserve to themselves...”{/span}

Reducing the amount of time in which signatures can be gathered — as lawmakers proposed earlier this year, floating an idea to cut the allotted time in half — would heavily incentivize the concentration of campaigns in densely packed urban areas where lots of people can be reached quickly in downtown areas or at large events. With only 9 months to gather signatures, why would any campaign spend time going door-to-door in sprawling Butte, Lemhi, Fremont or Clark counties? The effect would be that Idaho’s rural voices would be silenced.

A reasonable reform to ensure rural voices are heard would be to extend the signature-gathering window to, say, 24 months. That would give campaigns more time for outreach in places where it is logistically difficult to operate.

Even more deceitful is the notion of expanding the number of legislative districts where the signature threshold must be met, as lawmakers also proposed earlier this year. Lawmakers sought to raise the bar so high that few to none of the initiatives that Idaho voters have approved in the last century, from creating an independent Fish and Game Commission to the Sunshine Law, could even have been put to voters.

It would ensure an equal voice for rural districts only in the sense that it condemns all districts equally to silence.

It’s important to remember that this requirement isn’t to pass an initiative. That question is decided by state voters as a whole. The district quota is what must be met simply in order to raise such a question.

Go to the town hall with a mind open to new arguments and proposals. Consider what you hear, especially from proponents of changing the initiative process, carefully and rationally.

But also keep in mind the fundamental principles which must be defended, which are simply not up for debate. The ballot initiative is a natural right, your right. It is reserved to the people in the very same article of the state constitution that delegates to the Legislature its right to exist. Any effort by the Legislature to seriously impair the exercise of the ballot initiative is a usurpation of your rights, an attack on the basic principles of democracy.

Treat lawmakers with the courage to show up and listen to their constituents with respect. But also communicate clearly that if they attempt to trample on your rights, you will not tolerate it.

The town hall will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Senior Citizens’ Community Center at 535 W. 21st St.

The Post Register’s editorial board consists of Publisher Travis Quast, Managing Editor Monte LaOrange and editorial writer Bryan Clark. Clark can be reached at 208-542-6751.