Idaho Voters Speak Up As Lawmakers Work To Make Ballot Initiative Process Harder

Mar 15, 2019
Originally published on April 1, 2019 6:44 am

This week in Idaho, some voters are speaking out against a bill that would make it harder for citizens to get issues they care about on the ballot – anything from Medicaid expansion to marijuana.

Twenty-six states allow for voter-driven initiatives but as that process becomes more popular, lawmakers from Maine to Utah and Idaho believe it's time to pull it back.

In November, voters in Idaho passed Medicaid expansion by 61 percent. "I've always believed that if you don't like the way something is then you should do something about it," says Carol Richel, a third-generation Idahoan who, along with thousands of other volunteers, worked to get Medicaid expansion onto the ballot.

If passed, the bill would make it more difficult for citizen-driven initiatives to be put to voters in the state by requiring nearly twice as many people to sign petitions in one-third of the time.

Additionally, signatures would need to come from nearly every legislative district in a state which is more than 40 times the physical size of Delaware.

Richel and others say Medicaid expansion wouldn't have been possible under the proposed law, sponsored by Republican Sen. Scott Grow.

"I have to say, I was incredibly disappointed that he was wanting to take the voice of the people away," Richel says.

Sen. Grow says he doesn't want Idaho to become a state like California, where there are at least several ballot propositions every two years. "This right to propose voter initiatives can be carried to an extreme, reducing the effectiveness and efficiency of state government," Grow says.

But the hundreds of people who showed up for a public hearing earlier this week have said the bill is an attack on their Constitutional rights. Six members of the public were able to speak before Republican Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, the committee's chairwoman, tried to cut off a packed room from testifying. They eventually scheduled another hearing for Friday.

Now Carol Richel is volunteering again. She and others are knocking on doors in Sen. Grow's suburban Boise district, trying to drum up a little backlash of their own.

In other states, elected officials have completely repealed, or significantly undercut voter-enacted laws in recent years, according to Josh Altic who tracks initiatives for the website, Ballotpedia.

In 2017, the South Dakota legislature swatted down a measure that broadened campaign finance reporting laws. Florida initially made it illegal to smoke medical marijuana after voters amended their constitution to legalize the drug. Altic says he's seeing these moves more frequently.

"You'd think there'd be some sort of political consequences to overturning something that was approved at the ballot," he says. "I think we're still sort of waiting to see what that fallout could be."

If the bill does pass in Idaho, voters could still try to repeal it. But they'd have to play by the new – and more restrictive – rules to get it on the ballot.

Copyright 2019 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Some voters in Idaho say their voices are being silenced. That state is one of about a dozen where lawmakers are trying to make it harder for citizens to put issues they care about on the ballot, whether it be Medicaid expansion, marijuana, taxes, you name it. Idaho lawmakers say they just need to rein in all the ballot initiatives. Boise State Public Radio's James Dawson reports.

JAMES DAWSON, BYLINE: Voters passed Medicaid expansion in Idaho last year by a whopping 61 percent.

CAROL RICHEL: I am a Idaho native, third generation. And I've always believed that if you don't like the way something is that you should do something about it.

DAWSON: That's Carol Richel. She volunteered with thousands of others for Reclaim Idaho, the group that put the Medicaid expansion initiative on the ballot. But now supporters of that push say they're feeling a backlash from state Senator Scott Grow.

RICHEL: I have to say I was incredibly disappointed that he was wanting to take the voice of the people away.

DAWSON: The bill she's talking about would make it much, much harder for any kind of initiative or referendum to be put to voters here. Richel and others say Medicaid expansion wouldn't have happened under the proposed law.

RICHEL: For him to basically make it impossible to do that is devastating.

RICHEL: Groups would have to get nearly twice as many people to sign petitions, and they'd only have six months to do it. Right now, they have a year and a half. The other catch? These signatures would need to come from nearly every legislative district in a state which is geographically more than 40 times the size of Delaware. Senator Grow says he doesn't want Idaho to become like California, which routinely has several ballot propositions every two years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT GROW: This right to proposed voter initiatives can be carried to an extreme, reducing the effectiveness and efficiency of state government.

DAWSON: And he says lawmakers have to act now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GROW: I don't wait for a problem to happen and then try to solve it. I try to look forward to the future and avoid problems happening in the first instance.

DAWSON: But the hundreds of people who showed up for a public hearing earlier this week have said the bill is an attack on their rights. Just six of them were able to speak before Chairwoman Patti Anne Lodge tried to cut off a packed room from testifying.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATTI ANNE LODGE: Everyone else who signed up is against the bill. And so we will ask Senator Grow to please come forward and finish up.

DAWSON: The crowd was taken aback, and Republican leaders eventually scheduled another hearing. In response, Carol Richel and other volunteers are knocking on doors in Senator Grow's suburban Boise district, trying to drum up a little backlash of their own.

RICHEL: Beautiful dog. Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hey.

RICHEL: I'm Carol. I'm a volunteer with Reclaim Idaho.

DAWSON: The Idaho legislature has a history of adding restrictions to its initiative laws after being spurned by voters. They've done it twice since 1997. Lawmakers in Maine and Massachusetts are trying to make it harder to gather signatures too. In other states, elected officials have completely repealed or significantly undercut voter-enacted laws in recent years. That's according to Josh Altic, who tracks initiatives for the website Ballotpedia. He says he's seeing this more and more.

JOSH ALTIC: It's a pretty bold move, right? You'd think there'd be some political consequences to overturning something that was approved at the ballot. And I think we're still sort of waiting to see what that fallout could be.

DAWSON: If the bill does pass in Idaho, voters could still try to repeal it. But they'd have to play by the new and more restrictive rules to get it on the ballot. For NPR News, I'm James Dawson in Boise.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALMORHEA'S "BEHIND THE WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.