Eastern Idaho lawmakers should be commended for showing up to debate proposed changes to the initiative process at a town hall organized by Reclaim Idaho on Tuesday night. Organizers noted that the Idaho Falls town hall had better attendance by lawmakers than any of the similar events that have been held around the state.
The town hall was valuable because it allowed voters to hear from the horses’ mouths the reasoning behind proposed restrictions to the ballot initiative.
There were a few changes some lawmakers advocate for which they have some articulable justification. They argued that other legislation has a fiscal note projecting cost to the state, and argued initiatives shouldn’t be different. That’s an arguable point, at least.
But for most disastrous of the proposed changes, no coherent justification emerged.
Reducing the signature-gathering time window, for example, would be the single most effective way to silence rural Idaho districts.
The only argument that has been raised in favor of shortening the time window is that new technology allows signatures to be gathered quicker, a dubious assertion in general because signatures must be taken in person, and one that is especially dubious in the case of rural districts.
Idaho has vast geographical differences in access to broadband and related technologies. Everyone living in Boise may have access to high-speed internet, but that isn’t true in remote parts of Custer, Clark and Lemhi counties, for example. Whatever technologies might reduce the time needed for signature gathering, they aren’t as useful in Tendoy.
In those rural areas, the main method of gathering signatures is to go door to door, and when there are miles between doors, the process is very slow and laborious. While a signature gatherer in an urban area might easily get dozens of signatures in a few hours downtown, it could take days or weeks in rural communities.
This problem was repeatedly put to lawmakers who support the change, but they could produce no justification.
The same is true for increasing the number of legislative districts in which signatures must be gathered.
One participant noted that under the changes passed last year (which Gov. Brad Little thankfully vetoed), a few districts in central Boise could exercise effective veto power over any initiative. So if rural communities want to bring forward an initiative that addresses their concerns, they would be easily blocked by a small portion of the state’s most urban voters.
Why should a small number of districts, whether urban or rural, be able to block a question that has broad support elsewhere in the state? And it is important to remember that signature gathering isn’t the requirement to pass an initiative but simply to get the question on the ballot. Why shouldn’t both urban and rural districts be able to put forth questions for the people as a whole to answer?
The overarching concern expressed by lawmakers was that interest groups could get policies many of them do not support on the ballot.
What were the outcomes so horrifying that Idaho voters can’t be trusted to vote on them? Rep. Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg, point out two: medical marijuana and a minimum wage hike.
There are arguments both for and against legalizing medical marijuana and increasing the minimum wage. Reasonable people can come to different conclusions.
But these are questions of public policy clearly within the realm of legitimate political debate and decision-making, and there is no convincing argument that voters should be prevented from making their will known on these subjects.
As lawmakers consider changes to the initiative process, they should restrict themselves to those reforms at ensuring the integrity of the process, without venturing into changes that would fundamentally disable the process. That is the difference between the Legislature responsibly regulating the initiative process, as the Idaho Constitution allows, and stripping the people of a fundamental right by regulating it into nonexistence.