Should ballot initiatives require more widespread support?
Idaho’s constitution makes it very clear: “all political power is inherent in the people.” Article 3 defines one of the most sacred covenants – the process regarding initiatives and referenda:
The people reserve to themselves the power to approve or reject at the polls any act or measure passed by the legislature. This power is known as the referendum, and legal voters may, under such conditions and in such manner as may be provided by acts of the legislature, demand a referendum vote on any act or measure passed by the legislature and cause the same to be submitted to a vote of the people for their approval or rejection.
The people reserve to themselves the power to propose laws, and enact the same at the polls independent of the legislature. This power is known as the initiative, and legal voters may, under such conditions and in such manner as may be provided by acts of the legislature, initiate any desired legislation and cause the same to be submitted to the vote of the people at a general election for their approval or rejection.
The question is how that process unfolds. As the constitution makes clear – the power of initiative is subject to such conditions and in such manner as provided by acts of legislation.
SJR 101 is a constitutional amendment placed before the Idaho legislature to change the process of gathering signatures for statewide initiatives.
Instead of gathering signatures totaling six percent of voters from at least 18 legislative districts, it would require 6% from each of the state’s 35 legislative districts.
Proponents say the current process makes it “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.”
This is a concern shared by several other states which have distribution requirements.
One particular state to note is Massachusetts, where no more than 25% of signatures can come from any one county. This may be informative to the debate in Idaho.
This is not Idaho’s first attempt at strengthening its distribution requirement.
In 2001, a law requiring 6% of signatures from 22 of the 44 counties in the state was struck down in a case called Idaho Coalition United for Bears v. Cenarrusa.
At the time, the court wrote:
"...it easy to envision a situation where three-fourths of Idaho's voters sign a petition but fail to get it on the ballot because they could not collect 6 percent of the vote in rural counties."
The ruling was appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed the lower court’s ruling.
That is not to say SJR 101 is unconstitutional. In fact, the 2001 ruling clearly said “Idaho could achieve the same end through a geographic distribution requirement that does not violate equal protection, for example, by basing any such requirement on existing state legislative districts.”
Still, lawmakers should always be very cautious about placing additional requirements on the right of the people to make law.