Chamber of the Senate at the Idaho State Capitol, Boise, Idaho
Chamber of the Senate at the Idaho State Capitol, Boise, Idaho (Photo: Frank Schulenburg, reproduced under a Creative Commons license)

A pro­posed con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment that would make it much hard­er for the peo­ple of Ida­ho to direct­ly pro­pose laws them­selves through the ini­tia­tive process was approved yes­ter­day in the Repub­li­can-con­trolled Ida­ho State Sen­ate, show­ing that Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors remain obsessed with assault­ing direct democracy.

“On Mon­day, the Ida­ho Sen­ate vot­ed 27–8 to pass Sen­ate Joint Res­o­lu­tion 101, which would require 6% of vot­ers in all thir­ty-five Ida­ho leg­isla­tive dis­tricts to sign a peti­tion for an ini­tia­tive or ref­er­en­dum to qual­i­fy for elec­tion. The cur­rent thresh­old is six per­cent of vot­ers in eigh­teen leg­isla­tive dis­tricts,” the Ida­ho Cap­i­tal Sun’s Clark Corbin report­ed in a sto­ry on the scheme.

Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors pre­vi­ous­ly tried to impose such a require­ment through statute, but it was struck down by the Ida­ho Supreme Court as uncon­sti­tu­tion­al.

Amend­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion is a dif­fer­ent process than chang­ing state law. New laws require sim­ple majori­ties and a guber­na­to­r­i­al sig­na­ture (or veto over­ride). Con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ments need a two-thirds vote of each cham­ber to begin with plus an affir­ma­tive vote of the peo­ple. That means vot­ers will get the final say over this pro­pos­al if it advances through the House of Representatives.

The goal of SJR 101 is to stymie any future use of the peo­ple’s ini­tia­tive pow­er to let vot­ers con­sid­er poli­cies that go uncon­sid­ered in the state Leg­is­la­ture, which has been dom­i­nat­ed by mil­i­tant right wing Repub­li­cans for years.

Med­ic­aid expan­sion is a good exam­ple: Right wing leg­is­la­tors repeat­ed­ly refused to autho­rize it, so an ini­tia­tive was orga­nized and qual­i­fied to allow vot­ers to decide. The peo­ple vot­ed for it, which left Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors seething.

Doing away with the ini­tia­tive and ref­er­en­dum alto­geth­er would be unpop­u­lar, so Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors are instead focus­ing on try­ing to make it real­ly dif­fi­cult to qual­i­fy any­thing. (As far as they’re con­cerned, that is the next best thing.)

The open­ing para­graph of their state­ment of intent tries to frame their scheme as a mat­ter of fair­ness and inclu­siv­i­ty, which is just laughable:

The Joint Res­o­lu­tion will more fair­ly dis­trib­ute vot­er involve­ment and inclu­siv­i­ty for ini­tia­tives and ref­er­en­da by giv­ing every leg­isla­tive dis­trict in the state a voice. The Joint Res­o­lu­tion will ensure that the wish­es of all thir­ty-five leg­isla­tive dis­tricts are con­sid­ered ver­sus only eigh­teen leg­isla­tive dis­tricts as is cur­rent­ly allowable.

The real rea­son for the amend­ment pops up in the sec­ond paragraph:

The Joint Res­o­lu­tion will elim­i­nate the cur­rent prac­tice of “venue shop­ping” by well-fund­ed activist orga­ni­za­tions. For exam­ple, under the cur­rent sys­tem, it is pos­si­ble to acquire more than one half of the total num­ber of sig­na­tures required to place a ques­tion on the bal­lot from a sin­gle leg­isla­tive district.

Trans­la­tion: we do not want orga­ni­za­tions that aren’t aligned with us, like Reclaim Ida­ho, to be able to go to a pop­u­lous place like Boise and col­lect sig­na­tures to put an idea on the bal­lot that is at odds with our extreme agen­da for Ida­ho.

The phrase “venue shop­ping” is com­plete­ly inap­plic­a­ble here. The peo­ple of Ida­ho are not the judi­cia­ry, they are the qual­i­fied elec­tors of the state. Their votes — and sig­na­tures — should car­ry the same weight regard­less of leg­isla­tive dis­trict or zip code. There is noth­ing unfair about a sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­age of the sig­na­tures for a pro­posed bal­lot mea­sure com­ing from one locale with­in the state.

In the Leg­is­la­ture, any sen­a­tor or rep­re­sen­ta­tive may pro­pose a bill, res­o­lu­tion, or memo­r­i­al. There is no cospon­sor dis­tri­b­u­tion require­ment. In oth­er words, leg­isla­tive items don’t need cospon­sors from all thir­ty-five leg­isla­tive dis­tricts or even eigh­teen of them in order to be con­sid­ered in either the House or Senate.

The same should be true for bal­lot initiatives.

Geo­graph­ic sig­na­ture dis­tri­b­u­tion require­ments are incom­pat­i­ble with the prin­ci­ples of direct democ­ra­cy. They fun­da­men­tal­ly change how qual­i­fi­ca­tion works, giv­ing some vot­ers more pow­er than oth­ers. Even the eigh­teen dis­trict dis­tri­b­u­tion require­ment Ida­ho cur­rent­ly has is bad and ought to be abolished.

Wash­ing­ton has no such geo­graph­ic dis­tri­b­u­tion sig­na­ture require­ments. To qual­i­fy an ini­tia­tive, spon­sors must sub­mit a num­ber of sig­na­tures equiv­a­lent to eight per­cent of those who vot­ed in the last elec­tion for gov­er­nor. The sig­na­tures can be from vot­ers resid­ing any­where in the state, which is appropriate.

Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­a­tor James Ruchti of Pocatel­lo remarked dur­ing the debate that Repub­li­cans are sim­ply try­ing to stack the deck against future ini­tia­tives or ref­er­en­da that they do not like with oner­ous sig­na­ture requirements.

“When the peo­ple use their right, their direct leg­isla­tive rights, which the Con­sti­tu­tion allows them, the Leg­is­la­ture doesn’t like it and responds by say­ing, ‘Well, let’s make it hard­er to use,’” Ruchti said.


If SJR 101 can be defeat­ed in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, it will not advance. If it can’t be defeat­ed there, it could still be nixed by Ida­ho vot­ers. The mea­sure would appear on the Novem­ber 2024 bal­lot if it gets out of the Leg­is­la­ture, rather than this year’s bal­lot, allow­ing for plen­ty of time for an oppo­si­tion cam­paign to be orga­nized. NPI stands ready to help form an oppo­si­tion cam­paign in the unfor­tu­nate event that SJR 101 makes it to the statewide ballot.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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