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Lawsuit challenges Idaho’s new ballot initiative process

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Two groups on Friday filed a lawsuit with the Idaho Supreme Court challenging the state’s new law making it more difficult to get voter initiatives or referendums on ballots.

A group that has had previous ballot initiative success and another comprised of attorneys committed to defending Idaho’s Constitution filed the lawsuit against Secretary of State Lawerence Denney.

Reclaim Idaho and the Committee to Protect and Preserve the Idaho Constitution said the new law violates the state’s constitution because it makes the ballot initiative process impossible.

The groups are seeking an injunction to prevent the state from enforcing the law until the lawsuit is decided on its merits. The law went into effect with Republican Gov. Brad Little’s signature on April 17.

“Last month, the Idaho Legislature and Governor Brad Little snatched away one of our most fundamental rights — a right enshrined in our Constitution over 100 years ago,” Reclaim Idaho co-founder Luke Mayville said in a statement. “We’re filing this lawsuit on behalf of the people of Idaho, and we believe we will prevail.”

Chief Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck said the office doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Voter-driven ballot initiatives, which act as a check on the Legislature, have become a major focus in the state in recent years following a successful referendum canceling lawmaker-approved changes to education in 2013 and a ballot initiative approving Medicaid expansion in 2018 after lawmakers failed to act for years.

The previous rules, put in place after the 2013 referendums, required signatures from 6% of registered voters in each of 18 legislative districts in 18 months.

The new law requires 6% of registered voters in all 35 Idaho districts in 18 months. The overall number of signatures needed to get an initiative on the ballot remains the same, but they will need to be collected from a much wider array of districts.

Backers of the new law said it’s needed because the old process favored urban voters, allowing signature gatherers to focus much of their efforts in cities.

Opponents said the new law makes it impossible to get initiatives on ballots because a single legislative district has veto power over the entire process.

The groups also want the court to declare unconstitutional a requirement making legislation approved through the voter initiative not effective before July 1 of the following year.

The lawsuit also asks the court itself to set Idaho’s referendum and initiative process by eliminating legislative districts from the ballot initiative process entirely and simply require 6% of signatures from voters statewide.

“It’s kind of going back to the way it was several years ago,” said Jim Jones, a former chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court as well as a former Idaho attorney general. “Quite frankly, we got along for many many years without a geographic distribution requirement.”

Jones helped form the Committee to Protect and Preserve the Idaho Constitution, but he said he’s not taking an active part in the lawsuit.

In all, 14 states allow voter initiatives that go directly to the ballot, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

That voter right became part of Idaho’s Constitution in the early 1900s, but voters gave lawmakers the ability to decide how the process would work.

Jones said his interpretation of the Constitution wouldn’t allow lawmakers to make the ballot initiative process impossible.

Voters said “we’ll just leave the details up to you (lawmakers) on how to get it on the ballot, not kill it,” he said.

Little in 2018 vetoed two bills making the initiative process tougher, citing his concerns that a court could dictate the state’s process. In signing the current law, he said the courts appeared more favorable to siding with Idaho.

Currently, one group is collecting signatures to get a medical marijuana initiative on the ballot that, if successful, will appear on the November 2022 ballot. That attempt is operating under the previous rules as it received permission from the secretary of state’s office to collect signatures before the new law took effect.

On another front, Jones is seeking to get the OK to collect signatures for a referendum that would put the new ballot initiative law to voters with an up or down vote on the November 2022 ballot.

That effort will need to collect signatures under the new law, unless the Idaho Supreme Court rules that law unconstitutional.

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