Idaho man updates challenge to state’s initiative process

Posted at 5:10 AM, Nov 27, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-27 07:14:46-05

BOISE, Idaho — An Idaho man has filed documents to keep alive his federal court challenge to the constitutionality of the state’s ballot initiative process.

Ryan Isbelle filed the amended complaint Monday in U.S. District Court.

Isbelle contends the state’s initiative rules violate the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause because they give more weight to voters in some districts.

Chief U.S. District Court Judge David C. Nye in dismissing the lawsuit in October didn't rule on the merits of the case. Instead, Nye said Isbelle lacked standing to bring the lawsuit because he hadn't tried to get an initiative on the ballot.

Nye gave Isbelle 30 days to file an amended complaint.

In Isbelle’s filing Monday, he said he’s collecting signatures for an active ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage. He said in the lawsuit that on Friday he submitted his first petition signature sheet to the Nez Perce County deputy clerk and that the clerk “certified all seven signatures on the petition sheet, including the plaintiff’s.” He included a copy of the petition in his latest filing.

“Based on everything I’ve seen, unless the judge takes a very narrow stance on who can be harmed in the initiative process, I think I should have standing,” Isbelle said Tuesday. Isbelle is a beer delivery man in the Lewiston area who describes himself as a political junkie.

The attorney general's office, which argued for the lawsuit's dismissal, had no comment on the new filing.

The ballot initiative process in Idaho has been among the most contentious issues in the state in recent years, and it appears possible lawmakers will take it up again when the Legislature begins meeting in January.

Isbelle contends that a law passed in 2013 requiring signatures from 6% of voters in 18 legislative districts is unconstitutional. Before 2013, ballot initiatives required signatures from 6% of statewide voters.

Isbelle said the change unconstitutionally gave more weight to signatures in some districts, while the 6% statewide requirement kept all voters on an equal footing.

The 2013 change signed into law by then-Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, a Republican, came a few months after voters casting ballots on three initiatives rejected sweeping changes to the state's education system lawmakers approved in 2011.

It was the first time in nearly 80 years that voters used the initiative process to overturn laws passed by elected leaders.

Making the ballot initiative process tougher in 2013, lawmakers said, would prevent initiative backers from getting all or most of the signatures they needed from population centers.

Idaho is a conservative state with a Republican-dominated Legislature, but urban areas tend to be less conservative than rural areas.

Voters again used the initiative process in 2018, this time passing Medicaid expansion with 61% of the vote after years of inaction by state lawmakers.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate responded earlier this year by passing legislation, despite hours of heated testimony opposing it, making the initiative process significantly more difficult by upping the number of signatures and legislative districts required. Opponents complained it gave a handful of rural legislative districts veto power over the ballot initiative process.

Republican Gov. Brad Little vetoed the two bills, citing his concern that a federal judge might declare the laws unconstitutional and dictate the state's ballot initiative process.