Idaho bills restricting voting, ballot procedures hang in balance as session nears end

Voting rights are under fire across the U.S.

By: - April 1, 2021 6:00 am
The Idaho Statehouse in Boise

The Idaho State Capitol in downtown Boise. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

The fate of several bills that would restrict voting or ballot initiative procedures in Idaho hang in the balance when the Legislature reconvenes April 6 after postponing the 2021 session due to a COVID-19 outbreak at the Capitol.

One would put new restrictions on turning in absentee ballots.

  • House Bill 223, pushed by House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, would make it a felony to mail or drop off other people’s absentee ballots. Moyle said he wanted to protect the security of elections and fend off so-called ballot harvesting by political activists. But many opponents said the bill would turn Idahoans into criminals for helping friends or loved ones by dropping ballots in the mail or taking them to a county elections office.

Two other proposals before the Legislature would impact the ballot initiative process.

  • Senate Bill 1110 would change the signature gathering requirements for initiatives. The bill would make it so that ballot initiatives would need to have signatures of 6% of voters in all 35 legislative districts, up from the current requirement of 18 legislative districts. Supporters say the bill increases voter involvement in the referendum process and spreads the work of verifying signatures more evenly among county clerks. Opponents say the bill makes it that much harder to get a referendum or initiative on the ballot.

  • House Joint Resolution 4 seeks to create an amendment to the Idaho Constitution that would prohibit the legalization of controlled substances unless approved by a two-thirds supermajority of the Idaho Legislature. Supports say they want to create a high bar for legalizing drugs. But opponents say the resolution is an attempt to head off a potential ballot initiative where a simple majority of voters could legalize medical marijuana. Nationally, 36 states have approved comprehensive medical marijuana programs, including Utah and Montana, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. In November 2020, Montana voters legalized possession and use of marijuana for adults 21 and over.

There are several other voting and election bills that have been introduced but not advanced.

  • House Bill 255 would require an Idaho driver’s license or Idaho state-issued ID for new voter registrations. Student photo ID cards would no longer be an accepted form of ID for voter registration.

  • House Bill 121 would make it illegal for Idaho public colleges or universities to offer extra credit to students for voting.

The Senate Education Committee killed another bill March 17, two days before the Legislature announced an 17-day recess due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

  • House Bill 106 would have eliminated Idaho’s August election day entirely. Idaho law allows four election days each year, which take place in March, May, August and November. Rep. Vito Barbieri, the Dalton Gardens Republican who sponsored the bill, said getting rid of the August election would allow poll workers to instead conduct training or update voter rolls heading into November’s general elections. But opponents said the bill would have hurt school districts’ abilities to respond to financial or facilities emergencies right before the new school year begins.

Although many bills are a response to last year’s election or the proliferation of absentee voting (which has been offered in Idaho for years), not all increase restrictions or put up barriers.

Last May, Idaho shifted to an all-absentee primary election amid the coronavirus pandemic. During a special session in August, legislators passed a law, House Bill 1, that guarantees in-person voting will always be available.

Voting rights under fire nationally

Jaclyn Kettler BSU headshot
Jaclyn Kettler, Boise State University assistant professor of political science. Photo courtesy of Boise State University.

Idaho is not alone in considering a slew of bills that would change voting or ballot procedures. Boise State University assistant professor of political science Jaclyn Kettler said the Brennan Center for Justice think tank is tracking more than 250 such bills introduced in statehouses across the country this year.

“The general election is on the minds of a lot of state legislators as we continue to process and deal with the 2020 election,” Kettler said. “But really it wasn’t just the presidential election. It was also the primary, where some states shifted how they administer elections due to COVID-19.”

Several Republicans, who control a super majority in the Idaho House (58 Republicans-12 Democrats) and Senate (28 Republicans-seven Democrats), say the measures are about protecting the integrity of elections and preventing abuse or fraud that has not yet been widely documented in Idaho.

“While we agree that you should be able to vote, we want to make sure you don’t cheat or have illegal votes,” Moyle said. “We want to make sure no elections are hampered with.”

But House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said HB 223 — the ballot collections bill — and other measures are an attempt to restrict voting rights as part of an effort to hold on to political power by throwing up obstacles to voting.

“There is a unifying theme to everything we are seeing from the voter suppression bills, to the war on ballot initiatives through the latest HRJ 4 and the 250 bills making their way through state legislatures across the country, all being brought by the GOP,” Rubel said in a telephone interview. “I think it’s a response to the overarching problem of how do they keep control when the agendas of party leaders and politicians and Republican statehouses don’t reflect the desires of the people at large.”

Rather than addressing priorities Idahoans identified in recent Boise State University public policy surveys, which include investing in early education, expanding Medicaid (which Idaho voters approved via Proposition 2 in 2018) or reforming property taxes, Rubel said many Republicans are instead restricting voting and ballot initiative procedures or engaged in a power struggle with Gov. Brad Little.

“The people have one agenda, and the folks minding the Statehouse have another agenda,” Rubel said.

Should Idahoans be charged as felons for turning in friends’ and neighbors’ absentee ballots?

In debating the original version of his ballot collection bill, Moyle, whose day job is in agribusiness, told legislators that a neighboring farmer warned about a ballot harvesting scheme in Washington. Supposedly, Moyle said without providing any specific details or evidence, the unidentified people behind the scheme paid $20 for a Democratic ballot and $5 for a Republican ballot.

Rubel called Moyle’s story about paying higher bounties for Democrats’ ballots “so clearly nonsense, it’s almost comically unfounded.”

Moyle said he didn’t care that many Idahoans in rural communities often drop off ballots for friends, neighbors and family members who live far from a post office or county election office.

“And so, you have to make two trips to the post office, I understand that concern,” Moyle said Feb. 11. “But you know what, voting shouldn’t be easy.”

At the last minute, Moyle pulled the first version of his bill off the floor in the wake of opposition.

Less than two weeks later, Moyle was back with a slightly rewritten bill. For the latest version of House Bill 223, Moyle made a few minor rewrites, including raising the limit on ballots family members are allowed to turn in from two to six.

Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane said he supports the bill, although he has concerns about making violations a felony instead of a misdemeanor. McGrane said the idea was inspired by the bipartisan 2005 Commission on Federal Election that was co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker.

One of the commission’s recommendations to improve ballot integrity was “states and local jurisdictions should prohibit a person from handling absentee ballots, other than the voter, an acknowledged family member, the U.S. Postal Service or other legitimate shipper or election officials.”

Nevertheless, Rubel worries passage of the bill would make it much harder for many people to vote using absentee ballots, including American Indian tribal members living on a reservation, elderly or sick Idahoans and economically disadvantaged Idahoans, who may not have access to a vehicle.

In debating the new version, Moyle attempted to walk back his initial claim about how voting should not be easy. Moyle said voting should be easy and cheating should be hard and that sometimes when he gets worked up in the heat of debate “I say things I probably shouldn’t say.”

Moyle said he still worries about cheating and protecting elections.

But experts who follow politics and elections say fraud is rare, though it does happen.

“In general, we find election fraud is pretty rare and this is for a few reasons depending on how we define it,” Kettler said. “Generally, most issues tend to be accidental.”

Idaho Legislature has a history of pushing back against initiatives

The voting and election bills may be a response to 2020’s elections and the widespread use of absentee ballots. But pushing back against the citizens’ ballot initiative process is nothing new in Idaho, Kettler said.

  • In 2019, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 1159a, which would have cut the time for signature gathering and increased the number of legislative districts needed to be represented on signatures. Gov. Little vetoed the bill, blocking it from becoming law. The bill came forward shortly after voters passed the November 2018 Medicaid expansion ballot initiative.

  • In 2013, the Legislature passed a law, Senate Bill 1108, that made it tougher to put initiatives on the ballot by requiring signatures of 6% of voters in 18 different legislative districts, instead of 6% statewide. That law originated a few months after voters repealed Propositions 1,2 and 3 (the so-called Luna Laws or Students Come First laws) in November 2012.

  • In 2002, the Idaho Legislature repealed term limits, which voters approved via a ballot initiative in 1994. The Legislature passed House Bill 425, repealing term limits for federal, statewide, city and county elected officials, legislators and school board members and voted to override then- Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s veto of the bill.

With the 2021 session coming to a close, anyone interested in this year’s voting bills should watch the Senate State Affairs Committee, where Moyle’s bill on turning in absentee ballots has been referred. So far Senate State Affairs Committee Chairwoman Patti Anne Lodge, R-Caldwell, has not yet held a hearing on it.

There is still time for those bills to be heard in committee and pass the Senate in the final days. But when the session adjourns, any bills that have not passed both the House and Senate will die.

Efforts to connect with Lodge for an interview were not successful. But she sent an email to an Idaho Capital Sun reporter, writing in part that “Idaho has a great secure election process.”

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Clark Corbin
Clark Corbin

Clark Corbin has more than a decade of experience covering Idaho government and politics. He has covered every Idaho legislative session since 2011 gavel-to-gavel. Prior to joining the Idaho Capital Sun he reported for the Idaho Falls Post Register and Idaho Education News. His reporting in Idaho has helped uncover a multimillion-dollar investment scam and exposed inaccurate data that school districts submitted to the state.