Sam Sandmire

Sam Sandmire

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After 6 years of inaction from Idaho’s state legislature, thousands of volunteers joined Reclaim Idaho, a grassroots advocacy group, to gather signatures to get Medicaid Expansion on the 2018 ballot. The massive effort was successful and voters passed the initiative by 61%. Finally, Medicaid Expansion is bringing an estimated $400 million to Idaho annually to provide essential healthcare for over 80,000 Idahoans.

Last fall, Reclaim Idaho filed the ‘Invest in Idaho’ initiative to address Idaho’s inadequate funding for K-12 public education with modest tax increases on corporations and the wealthiest Idahoans. Our message resonated with voters who are tired of Idaho’s current system that unfairly burdens property taxpayers. They’re tired of constant school levies and a system where the quality of a child’s education depends on their zip code.

Idaho currently ranks 50th in the nation in per-pupil investment in education, and Governor Little recently announced an additional $99 million cut to the state’s K-12 budget. The Invest in Idaho education initiative is needed now, more than ever.

Reclaim Idaho volunteers were on track to meet the 55,000 valid signature total and the district requirement for our education initiative. Then the Covid19 pandemic hit Idaho.

Determined volunteers immediately began implementing safety practices like sanitizing clipboards, donning masks and gloves and having signers keep the pens we provided. We brainstormed potential solutions like creating drive-up signature gathering stations, allowing only 1 signature per petition page and calling out to people from 6 feet away and directing them to tables set up with petitions and pens.

When the Governor’s emergency declaration and stay-home order hit, in-person signature gathering became not only unsafe, but unlawful. Reclaim Idaho representatives petitioned Governor Little, Secretary of State Denney and the State Legislature, asking them to allow electronic signatures and extend the May 1 turn-in deadline. All requests were denied, so we were forced to suspend signature gathering.

Reclaim Idaho recently filed a lawsuit claiming the Governor and Secretary of State violated our First Amendment rights by failing to provide a safe way to collect signatures during the Covid19 pandemic. Rulings for similar lawsuits in other states indicate that, like voting rights, citizen ballot initiative rights must be protected during a pandemic.

To be clear, Reclaim Idaho does not oppose Governor Little’s emergency declaration or stay-home order. The lawsuit simply requests accommodation for safe signature gathering during this pandemic. Electronic signatures are legal, verifiable and widely used by government and private entities in Idaho for tax filings, contracts, business transactions and banking.

A recent ruling in Colorado upheld Governor Jaren Polis’ executive order allowing electronic signatures for an initiative during Covid19. Polis argued that “The constitutional right of citizens to petition the government should not be sacrificed in a pandemic.” The judge ruled that prohibiting electronic signatures “would harm the public interest by negatively impacting citizens’ fundamental right to initiative and referendum as provided by the Colorado Constitution.”

On Tuesday, June 23 at 2pm during a hearing accessible by Zoom, Reclaim Idaho will argue for temporary permission to use electronic signatures on the Invest in Idaho ballot initiative. We will also ask for 48 days to gather those signatures, the same amount of time that was lost during the Governor’s emergency orders.

Getting an initiative on the ballot is extremely difficult in Idaho—and it should be! But making it impossible violates citizens’ constitutional rights.

Sam Sandmire is a Reclaim Idaho volunteer.

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