IDAHO — For the bulk of her life, Linda Larson, a software engineer, steered clear of politics. Now formally retired, the 61-year-old lives in Sandpoint, Idaho — a ski town in the northernmost portion of the Gem State situated on the boomerang-shaped Lake Pend Oreille, which is outlined by sturdy, tree-covered mountains on all sides. The idyllic town is where Larson raised her children. In recent years, it’s also been her basecamp for the formidable grassroots organizing she’s now adopted as her new day (and night) job.
In 2017, Larson met north Idaho natives Luke Mayville and Garrett Strizich, two Gen Xers and founders of Reclaim Idaho, a citizen-led organization on a mission to “protect and improve the quality of life of working Idahoans.” In true Northwestern fashion, Mayville and Strizich had recently painted a 1977 Dodge camper bright green, printed “Medicaid for Idaho” along the sides and had just begun an unprecedented statewide organizing effort talking to their neighbors, mobilizing volunteers and gearing up for what would be a successful ballot initiative campaign to expand Medicaid in one of the most reliably conservative states in the nation.
Larson soon found herself a co-leader of volunteers in Bonner County, which encompasses Sandpoint. Her team — including her 82-year-old mother, who, it turns out, is an excellent petition manager — amassed more than 4,500 signatures in two legislative districts.
“Collecting [signatures] in a rural district is very difficult,” Larson told The News Station.
Canvassing in big cities or tightly packed suburbs is easy compared to the work (and gas money) required to collect signatures in more rural areas, where houses are often miles apart — and going door-to-door in sparsely populated communities takes a great deal of time and volunteer effort. In the winter, Larson recalls one day when a team of volunteers spent hours knocking on doors and, due to the distance between residences and the cold weather, came back with only six valid signatures.
Still, eager organizers like Larson brought tens of thousands of Idahoans a major win in 2018: They collected the necessary signatures to place a Medicaid expansion initiative on the ballot. Collecting the signatures may have been grueling work, but the reward at the ballot box was worth the effort. More than 61% of voters in this traditionally conservative state greenlighted the measure.
At the time, Idaho law mandated petitioners gather signatures from 6% of qualified voters in the most recent general election in 18 of the state’s 35 legislative districts. Rebuking the state’s Republican leaders deeply opposed to all things Obamacare brought a curious reaction from state officials: In every legislative session since 2018, the most conservative lawmakers in the Gem State have attempted to upend the ballot measure process. In just the past two years, GOP lawmakers introduced more than a dozen legislative proposals aimed purely at curtailing residents’ ability to organize and propose laws.
These attempts continued this year, as the Republican-controlled legislature passed new restrictions on the ballot measure process over the opposition of a majority of their own constituents.
Citizens across the country have increasingly seen success in organizing ballot measures around policies elected officials refuse to consider, including codifying voting rights and ballot access, expanding Medicaid, decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana, and increasing the minimum wage. In response, lawmakers, particularly in Republican-controlled legislatures, are now fighting to increase restrictions in laws governing the citizen initiative process.
Mayville calls this a “Red State Assault” on ballot measures. In February, he noted many conservative lawmakers have ties to the right wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which unites them around the goal of limiting citizen participation in the democratic process.
“There is something of a unifying trend,” he told Sludge. “When you look at ALEC, and you look at all these organizations, the ballot initiative is scary for them because it threatens to undermine their legitimacy.”
As of June 25, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC) was tracking 146 bills aimed at changing the process in 33 states.
According to a “hot sheet” on BISC’s website:
“These attacks have been increasing since the 2016 election, as state lawmakers in Republican-led states want to take the tool of direct democracy away from the People. The attacks against the ballot measure process are coordinated, and they are becoming more nuanced, more sophisticated, and would have deeper impacts on the initiative process.
“Now, GOP legislators are enacting legislation to make the ballot process harder to access while also engaging in direct efforts to repeal the will of the voters after ballot measures have already been passed. The Republican State Leadership Committee has asserted its determination to make sure ballot measures are no longer a viable tool for progressives.”
Anti-weed Politicians Take Aim at Cannabis Legalization
Jackee Winters found relief through cannabis in the early 1990s after losing a daughter in a car accident in which Winters also suffered a traumatic brain injury. Winters’ second daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer as a teenager and used cannabis to mitigate the side effects of treatment.
“I want to help Idahoans,” said Winters, a certified nurse’s assistant who is leading the effort to put medical marijuana before voters in 2022. “I’m disabled but I am so abled. This is a compassion measure.”
Some Idaho lawmakers don’t see cannabis legalization as compassionate.
Following the successful Medicaid Expansion initiative in Idaho in 2018, Republican Sen. C. Scott Grow proposed restrictions to the state’s ballot measure process — legislation that was reluctantly vetoed by Republican Gov. Brad Little following a public pressure campaign. Grow didn’t explicitly call out potential marijuana initiatives in his 2019 proposal, though he made his intentions clear in the 2021 legislative session when he introduced a resolution that would have preempted both the state legislature and citizens from legalizing cannabis or any other drug not already legal in the state and approved by the Federal Drug Administration. That measure passed the state Senate but failed in the House.
“Good senators, I beg you: we have to keep this state clean,” Grow said during his testimony on the resolution in February. Grow referred to Idaho as “the last foxhole” in the region without some sort of marijuana legalization on the books.
It is true that Idaho lags behind its neighbors when it comes to overwhelmingly popular cannabis reform policies. Of the six states that border Idaho, four have legalized adult recreational and medical use, and one has greenlighted a medicinal marijuana program. It is also true that state lawmakers across the country continue to fight the will of the voters when it comes to cannabis.
Voters in five states approved recreational or medical marijuana initiatives in 2020 alone, and legalization opponents—including elected officials—were quick to bring legal challenges in South Dakota, Mississippi and Montana. In May, the Mississippi Supreme Court effectively killed the ballot measure process entirely in the Magnolia State after invalidating a medical marijuana initiative due to outdated language in the state’s law governing the process. South Dakota’s Republican Gov. Kristi Noem approved the use of taxpayer funds to fight cannabis legalization her constituents approved in November. That challenge awaits a state supreme court ruling. Non-legislative opponents of an adult-use marijuana measure passed by voters in Montana dropped their lawsuit this month, as Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a bill into law, but the legislature’s bill was an altered version of what voters approved in November.
In the more than 100 years since Idahoans have had the right to propose initiatives, only 37 measures qualified for the ballot. While Sen. Grow failed to tighten restrictions on Idaho’s ballot measure process in 2019, his colleague, conservative Republican Steve Vick, managed to get the job done during the most recent legislative session.
Sen. Vick’s bill, SB 1110, which passed despite overwhelming public opposition, requires petitioners to collect signatures from 6% of qualified voters in all 35 districts.
A few of the state’s newspaper editorial boards criticized the legislation, and one drew a direct line from the proposed restrictions to lawmakers’ fear that a medical or recreational marijuana measure might qualify and be put to voters in the coming years.
“At least part of the motivation behind this bill is the fear that Idahoans might vote to legalize medical or recreational marijuana by ballot initiative,” the Post Register’s editorial board wrote.
“And thinking these restrictions would prevent legalization from landing on the ballot someday is foolish. Marijuana is now a large, profitable national industry,” the board continued. “The marijuana industry can afford to pay an army of signature gatherers … These restrictions will primarily target grassroots, poorly funded campaigns — the exact sort of campaigns which the ballot initiative is meant to support.”
Winters has already begun collecting signatures for her initiative under the previous law that mandates signatures from at least 6% of votes in 18 of 35 districts, though she is monitoring the court case.
Idaho podcaster Russ Belville is currently helping Winters gather signatures for the medical marijuana measure, though he has filed an adult-use decriminalization initiative with the state and is awaiting approval to begin collecting signatures for that proposal.
Despite the long odds under either initiative law, Belville said he doesn’t believe two separate efforts on marijuana reform will impede either from qualifying to go before voters.
“We don’t see it as any more difficult to have one clipboard in our hand versus having two,” he said.
Winters admitted having two efforts concurrently may confuse voters, though she remains optimistic about changing Idaho marijuana law via ballot measures.
“I have lived here all my life and I don’t want to relocate and I want to make sure that there’s pain control for the people who need it.”Jackee Winters
Idaho Supreme Court and the Road Ahead
Following Gov. Little’s approval of SB 1110, Reclaim Idaho sued the state, alleging the new law infringes on the people’s right to qualify measures for the ballot.
“The initiative process has been enshrined in Idaho’s Constitution for over 100 years,” Mayville told TNS in an email. “It is the right of every citizen. This lawsuit will determine whether the initiative process survives as a cherished constitutional right or whether it becomes a dead letter.”
The Idaho Supreme Court in June heard oral arguments from attorneys representing the state as well as Reclaim Idaho and another petitioner. In a hearing conducted over Zoom, judges pressed attorneys to explain who has pre-eminent power under the Idaho Constitution.
“The pre-eminent one would be the people, the source from which all power flows,” Deborah Ferguson, an attorney representing the groups who brought the challenge to the court, said.
Idaho Deputy Attorney General Megan Larrondo disagreed.
“The people are fundamentally the source from which the government springs. However, they have adopted a constitution that sets the parameters for government, and that is the framework, that is the parameters that we are working within today,” she said.
Reclaim Idaho and allies, including former Idaho attorney general and former state Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones, a Republican who has clashed with far-right members of his own party, are prepared to continue this fight regardless of how the court rules.
Ahead of Little greenlighting the new restrictive law in April, Reclaim Idaho filed an initiative petition, Idaho Initiative Rights Act of 2022, which would eliminate any district distribution requirement for ballot measure petitions while maintaining the mandate that signatures collected be equal to at least 6% of qualified electors in the most recent general election.
“The Initiative Rights Act is an insurance policy for the people of Idaho,” Mayville said in an April press release. “If neither the governor nor the courts decide to protect citizen initiative rights, we believe that Idaho citizens should have the opportunity to take the matter into their own hands.”
In a separate effort, Jones filed a veto referendum measure, which is subject to the same signature requirements under Idaho law as initiatives.
Both the Idaho Initiative Rights Act and the veto referendum would allow voters to weigh in on the ballot measure process in 2022, should the courts opine in favor of the state.
“If we prevail in court, and our initiative rights are protected, it will send a signal to state legislators around the country that many in this country will stand up for the initiative process — that grassroots organizations can fight back and win.”Luke Mayville, co-founder of Reclaim Idaho
Reclaim Idaho has also filed a separate initiative, the Quality Education Act, which seeks to raise taxes on Idahoans making $250,000 or more to inject $300 million into the state’s public school system. The group had attempted to put this measure on the ballot in 2020, but Little rejected electronic signature gathering efforts amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, however, the court may stand in the way of this education measure.
According to a press release from Reclaim Idaho, “In the event that [we] prevail in court, the organization will continue its signature drive for the Quality Education Act, a ballot initiative that would increase funding for K-12 education by over $300 million annually. If the Court does not strike down the new anti-initiatives law, Reclaim Idaho will likely put its campaign for education funding on hold and instead proceed with a signature drive to qualify the Initiative Rights Act for the ballot.”