By FRANK PRIESTLEY
For the Capital Press
Idaho Farm Bureau's position on new legislation currently under consideration by the Idaho Legislature that would strengthen the voter initiative process is being misunderstood and misrepresented by the media.
The legislation in question, Senate Bill 1108, would ensure there is broad support across the state for any issue before it is placed on the ballot for an initiative or referendum. It does not raise the bar on the total number of signatures required, but would require that the signatures that are gathered come from across the state rather than just one or two heavily populated areas. This legislation has nothing to do with the education measures that failed in last fall's election, of which Farm Bureau took no position on.
Recent newspaper editorials cite a previous ruling wherein the court struck down a proposal requiring 6 percent of voters from 22 of Idaho's 44 counties in order to get an initiative on the main ballot. The new legislation specifies 6 percent of voters in 18 legislative districts. A recent editorial in the Nampa Press-Tribune called the change "divisive, cynical, unnecessary and without merit."
However, the same court ruling cited by the newspaper also states 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."
It seems that some newspapers believe that rural Idaho should take a backseat in the initiative process. The arguments raised by those in opposition seem to believe that a class distinction should exist between urban and rural voters. This legislation seeks to correct the discrepancy.
The threat on the horizon comes from large non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like the Humane Society of the United States and others. Their tactics have worked in several states and placed unnecessary restrictions on agriculture. In fact, their power and influence have become so prevalent that just the threat of them bringing an initiative has caused some states to cave in to their demands.
The bottom line here is that the process of lawmaking is difficult for good reasons. It should be challenging for a wealthy, out of state organization with an agenda, to come to Idaho and force their way onto our ballot.
To illustrate the issue of numbers, consider that statewide there are 895,834 registered voters. Ada County has 251,467 registered voters as of the last general election. Therefore, it would only take 21.3 percent of registered voters in Ada County to get the required 53,750 signatures. If you add Canyon County, it would take only 15.5 percent of registered voters in those two counties to qualify a measure for the ballot. With numbers like these, why would signature gatherers ever need to venture outside the Treasure Valley?
Since the 1930s, when the initiative and referendum laws were enacted, demographics in Idaho have changed dramatically. Back then our population was much more evenly distributed and there was no real danger that one part of the state could potentially impose its will on the rest of the state. Because of increasing urbanization and population declines in rural areas over past decades, it's easily conceivable that the urban areas of the Treasure Valley could place items on the ballot that would be detrimental to rural interests, and have the votes to ensure passage. This is one of the main reasons our founding fathers rejected direct democracy in favor of a representative republic.
Many other states also have geographic requirements for their initiative and referendum procedures, many of which are even more restrictive than the one proposed by S1108.
S1108 does not restrict access to the ballot or limit citizens' ability to petition the government. It simply provides an additional "check and balance" to ensure broad support for an idea before it can move forward. While it may require a little more work to gather signatures across the state, that is a small price to pay to ensure that the rights of the minority are protected from the majority.
Frank Priestley is president of the Idaho Farm Bureau.