Rural areas seek ballot defense
Farm Bureau backs change to ensure 'broad support across the state'
By SEAN ELLIS
BOISE -- A bill that seeks to give farmers and other Idahoans in rural areas a bigger voice when it comes to proposed ballot initiatives and referendums has been introduced in the Idaho Legislature.
The bill, crafted by the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, was sent to print Jan. 21 by the Senate State Affairs Committee, guaranteeing it a public hearing.
Idaho currently requires supporters of proposed ballot initiatives or referendums to obtain the signatures of at least 6 percent of registered voters in the state in order for the measure to qualify for the ballot.
The proposed bill would require supporters to gather the signatures of at least 6 percent of voters in at least 22 of the state's 35 legislative districts, and the total number of signatures would still have to equal at least 6 percent of registered voters statewide.
IFBF lobbyist Russ Hendricks told lawmakers that signature collectors camp out in downtown Boise to gather the vast majority of the required signatures, preventing voters in less populated areas from having a chance to weigh in on proposed ballot initiatives and referendums.
The Farm Bureau-backed bill "seeks to ensure there is broad support across the state for issues before they are placed on the ballot," he said.
The bill is partly a response to concern about a possible ballot initiative on animal welfare being proposed by the Humane Society of the United States, said IFBF spokesman John Thompson. Livestock groups in the state are concerned an HSUS-backed ballot initiative could seek to place restrictions on animal agriculture.
But Thompson said the group is also concerned about any movements "that would try to put restrictions on agriculture through the use of initiatives. This would provide an opportunity for rural residents to be represented in the process."
The Idaho Legislature passed a similar bill in 1997 that required ballot initiatives to be supported by 6 percent of voters in at least 22 of Idaho's 44 counties. That law was overturned by the U.S. District Court for Idaho and the ruling was upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The court ruled that as there is wide disparity between the populations in rural and urban counties in Idaho, the rule violated the one-person, one-vote rule and gave greater clout to rural areas.
But the state's legislative districts all have roughly the same population.
Hendricks pointed out that 9th Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt, writing for the majority, stated that "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."
Hendricks faced questions from several lawmakers, including Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise.
"What problem are you looking to solve with this legislation?" said Werk, a member of Idaho's minority party. "To me, this (will) make it more difficult for people to have a say when the election's coming around."
The bill was criticized by "Idaho 1 of 3," a collection of Idaho animal rights groups that last year failed to gather enough legal signatures for a proposed animal welfare ballot initiative.
The group gathered enough signatures, but one-third were disqualified because they didn't meet the state's already stringent ballot initiative legal requirements, said Idaho 1 of 3 President Virginia Hemingway.
"It's already extremely difficult to get an initiative on the ballot in Idaho, as our organization discovered," she said. "To add this to the already stringent legal requirements is just a completely terrible idea."