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'They didn’t want the people of Idaho to use the process': Idaho Supreme Court set to review new ballot initiative law amid controversy

Arguments on the controversial new law will be heard on June 29. Critics of the law say they want to see it struck down because of constitutional violations.

BOISE, Idaho — The date is set for a challenge of a new Idaho law in the Idaho Supreme Court. Justices will review arguments on Senate Bill 1110 on June 29. 

S.B. 1110, which just passed in the last legislative session, changes the requirements needed to qualify a citizen's initiative on a ballot. Previously, Idahoans could get a voter initiative on the ballot if they got signatures from 6% of eligible voters in 18 of the state's 35 legislative districts.

Now, campaigns are required to get the signatures of 6% of voters in all 35 districts.

"This new law gives Idaho the most restrictive signature requirement in the country,” said Luke Mayville, co-Founder of the citizen's group Reclaim Idaho.

Reclaim Idaho worked to get Medicaid expansion on the ballot in 2018 through a signature campaign. Under the new law, getting Medicaid expansion on the ballot in 2018 would have had a much different outcome, according to Mayville.

"There is no way under this current law. There is no way Medicaid expansion would have passed," he said. "Medicaid expansion only had the needed number of signatures in about 21 out of 35 districts and it would have been very hard to get those remaining 14 districts."

This is not the first time in recent years that legal action was considered over a voter initiative bill. In 2019, two bills that aimed to change the signature requirements from 6% of registered voters to 10% passed the Idaho legislature. 

Legal action was avoided after Gov. Brad Little vetoed both bills. In his veto letter, Little said he questioned the constitutional sufficiency of the bills and worried about a federal judge being the only voice in defining the process. 

Little acknowledged his 2019 veto action and expressed similar legal concerns with S.B. 1110 in his transmittal letter shortly after signing it into law. Little wrote that he believed the new law was a much closer legal call than the 2019 legislation. 

KTVB reached out to Gov. Little's office for comment but has not yet received a response.

“The Governor’s Office is a constitutional office that is obligated to uphold the Idaho constitution," Mayville said. "If you have serious constitutional questions about a bill, you’d think that the Governor would go ahead and veto it, so that was surprising."

There are two likely outcomes for Reclaim Idaho: the Supreme Court sides with them and the law is nixed, or the Supreme Court rules the new law is constitutional.

“We do have a backup plan. We have filed a new ballot initiative called the Initiative Rights Act," Mayville said. “What that would do would restore the signature-gathering rules to what they used to be for most of Idaho history, which was simply that you have to collect signatures from 6% of voters throughout the state of Idaho regardless of where those voters lived."

Supporters of S.B. 1110 believe increased requirements make the process more fair to rural Idaho while also ensuring the ballot doesn’t become cluttered with a litany of initiatives like in the state of California.

“I think the more people you have involved in helping to create law, whether it is in the initiative process or in the traditional process, I think that is a good thing,” S.B. 1110 sponsor Rep. Jim Addis (R-Coeur d' Alene) said. “It is not a Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal issue. I just think it is really good policy, and if we start with good policy, we get better results, and that’s what I’m for.”

Critics of the idea feel the previous rules only resulted in two initiatives making the ballot in about a decade and that all Idahoans do get a vote if an initiative makes the ballot.

“It is very clear that the legislature decided to change the rules because they didn’t want the people of Idaho to use the process," Mayville said. "They opposed Medicaid expansion for over six years, and they were angry that the people of Idaho decided to expand Medicaid and there are a whole lot of other things the people of Idaho may want to do in the future."

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