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Don't change Idaho ballot referendum rules

Press-Tribune Editorial board
January 27, 2013
Idaho Press-Tribune

The Idaho Farm Bureau and Nampa Sen. Curt McKenzie are afraid it's too easy for initiatives and referendums to get on Idaho ballots without broad state support. So McKenzie introduced a bill in the Idaho Legislature that would require signatures from 6 percent of eligible voters in 22 of the state's 35 legislative districts before those measures could qualify for a statewide vote.

Now, such initiatives require signatures from 6 percent of the state's registered voters - somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 people.

Remember, just two months ago, voters across the state rejected Propositions 1, 2 and 3 - Superintendent Tom Luna's controversial Students Come First education changes. Those reforms received broad support from Republican lawmakers, so the timing of McKenzie's bill has some people suspecting sour grapes. These skeptics claim he didn't like what voters did with the education laws, so he's going to make such rebukes harder in the future.

If that's really the case, he'd never admit it publicly. So let's give him the benefit of the doubt, assume that's not his motivation and evaluate his proposal on its own merits.

McKenzie is afraid that, without the law, urban areas would be able to ram through ballot initiatives on the strength of their larger populations, leaving rural areas powerless. When he says these citizen laws should have "broad support," he means broad geographic support.

But the whole point of elections is that the majority of voters wins. Where they live - be it in a big, crowded city or out in the sparsely populated country - is immaterial. One person, one vote.

Does that mean Ada and Canyon counties have a lot of power? Yes. That's because they have a lot of people. One person, one vote. The Idaho Legislature was never intended to be the United States Senate, where North Dakota has the same power as New York - both with two senators.

Why is the Farm Bureau involved in this? Because the group is concerned an animal cruelty initiative that would restrict some practices farmers and ranchers have long used would make it to the ballot. The thinking is that more rural regions would have a better understanding of that, whereas more urban ones wouldn't. Hence the need for approval from more less populated regions.

This argument might hold water if agriculture wasn't as respected and well-represented as it is in Idaho. It has a very strong lobby in the Legislature, and that lobby flexed its muscle last year when lawmakers passed an animal cruelty law carefully crafted to protect farmers and ranchers. It stands to reason this lobby would present a powerful, persuasive argument to the state's voters should such an initiative make the ballot.

And ultimately, any election depends on the wisdom of voters. The Farm Bureau - and everyone else - should have faith that Idaho voters will carefully evaluate any initiatives and make the best decision for our state. It's up to you to make your case. If you can't, you don't deserve to win. Don't assume Idahoans don't know what they're doing when they go to the polls.

Getting 50,000 valid, verified signatures from registered voters in a state this size isn't as easy as it sounds. It's tough work. If it weren't, we'd be seeing ballots loaded with initiatives and referendums every election. Have you seen such ballots?

Even if McKenzie's bill did become law, there's a good chance it would be quickly wiped out by a court ruling. A 1997 law that required 6 percent of registered voters from 22 of Idaho's 44 counties was struck down - a ruling upheld by a federal appeals court in 2003. The only difference between this bill and that law is the substitution of "legislative districts" for "counties." But the intent is the same - giving more weight to where people live. That's divisive, cynical, unnecessary and without merit.

Idaho's rural counties have strong representation in the Legislature. Concerned residents can contact their lawmakers and have those concerns addressed via the normal legislative process.

On rare occasions when initiatives make it on the ballot, rural folks should have confidence that their urban neighbors will respect their views. And when there's a difference of opinion, majority rules. That's the way it's supposed to be.

Our view is based on the majority opinions of the Idaho Press-Tribune editorial board. Members of the board are Publisher Matt Davison, Managing Editor Vickie Holbrook, Opinion Editor Phil Bridges and community members Maria Radovich, Mike Fuller, Kenton Lee, Rich Cartney, Megan Harrison and Kelly Gibbons.

Originally posted at

The editorial posted here is provided by permission of its original publisher and does not necessarily reflect the views of Idaho Public Television.

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