Democracy in the streets

By Seth Ogilvie

Everyone has an opinion. The strange thing is some people are probably getting paid to think that way. As I stood in line to enter the Treefort music festival this past weekend, that became abundantly clear. A person with a clipboard approached me, asking “Do you like horseys? Do you like healthcare? Do you like healthy horses?”

Another person trailed behind the signature-gatherer, countering, “That’s not true. You need to get the facts.”

Two ballot initiatives were on the clipboard: One to expand Medicaid in Idaho, and another to legalize historic horse racing, an activity critics have compared to casino gaming or slot machines. That person with the clipboard was most likely paid to collect signatures for the two ballot initiatives, a common practice for groups looking to get issues in front of voters.

The person saying “That’s not true” was also most likely being paid.

I declined to sign the petition or enter into the conversation, but the new form of paid democracy made an imprint.

I witnessed the same interaction two more times over the Treefort weekend. It started to become a choreographed dance between the petitioner and the anti-petitioner. They both played their role and they both likely got paychecks, a jaded modern sense or democracy.

On Tuesday, I saw a different side of the issue. A young man wearing a “Save Horse Racing” shirt and holding a clipboard walked into a local coffee shop, talking loudly on the phone. “They’re harassing me. I just feel uncomfortable,” he said.

He appeared distressed. Melissa Davlin and I were close enough to overhear the conversation. After he hung up, I asked him if he would like to chat. He said  “You’re reporters. I can’t legally talk to you,” then left the coffee shop.

That is what I’ve seen with my own eyes. Those are the actors playing out this story.

These are the directors: A PAC called Committee to Save Idaho Horse Racing, Create Jobs, and Fund Public Schools. Their chairman is the previous speaker of the house Bruce Newcomb and their treasurer is John Sheldon.

The other director is the North Idaho Voter Project. Their chairman is Heather Keen, and treasurer is Tyrel Stevenson.

Paid signature collectors are not new. They have existed in Idaho for years going back to Propositions 1, 2, 3, and before.

But those anti-signature gatherers stood out to us.

“Nobody is aware of this happening before,” said Todd Dvorak, director of public media relations for Strategies 360 in Idaho, a consulting firm involved with gathering signatures for the horse racing petition. “But I know companies who have contracted these sort of things out are aware of these things happening in other states.”

“I don’t think anyone invented it. If you look at California and Oregon, they do it all the time,” said Tyrel Stevenson, treasurer for North Idaho Voter Project. “It is democracy on the streets is what it is.”

Both sides claim a First Amendment right to be on the streets.

“We get the free speech thing. It protects the canvassers as it does the blockers, but the folks that are being harassed, we feel like that infringes on the democratic process,” Dvorak said. “We don’t think that is the way politics should be done in this state.”

“I think people’s First Amendment right to provide people with useful information is a very strong right, and I think it is not without limits. I don’t think it allows people to disturb the peace or to assault or batter. I don’t think there is an acceptance to criminal laws on the book right now for that type of conduct,” Stevenson said. “I can assure you, any people that I’m associated with would never break the law, and if they do they are going to be subject to the same penalties that you or I would.”

The people gathering the signatures are required to follow Idaho election laws.

“(Petition gatherers) have to be Idaho natives. They have to be a certain age to take part in this and they are obligated to provide factual information about this and they are doing so verbally and in the pamphlets that we provide, and that information mirrors what is on the ballot, and that information has already been signed off on by the Attorney General’s office and the Secretary of State,” Dvorak said. “(Our) side has to follow a certain set of rules. The other side doesn’t have that set of standards.”

According to Tim Hurst, chief deputy at the Secretary of State’s office, there is nothing in the code that would specifically address the ‘blocking’ outside of a possible intimidation statute.

“There is very little guidance,” said Stevenson. “I think there are a lot of questions that have not been resolved when it comes to initiative and referendum activity in Idaho. We’ve had so little of it. We haven’t had an initiative on the ballot in years. It’s so difficult to do it.”

“This is a blatant attempt to disrupt and undermine the process of direct democracy by physically and verbally intimidating voters,” said Bruce Newcomb, former Speaker of the House and chairman of the Save Idaho Horse Racing campaign, in a Wednesday press release. “While campaigns can be and often are wars of words, these folks are using in-your-face intimidation tactics to prevent the people from putting a key policy question on the ballot.”

“The blockers are waiting outside the headquarters every morning to follow where are folks are going, and to set up right where they are,” said Dvorak.

Legal action may be the only remedy available for petition gatherers who feel threatened.

“If people are breaking the law, they should contact law enforcement,” said Stevenson. Dvorak said no one has filed police reports.

The Attorney General’s office had not yet commented on whether there are any rules that would govern the interactions between pro- and anti-ballot initiative workers at the time this story was published.

For a ballot initiative to get on the ballot the bar is incredibly high. Regardless of the so called “blockers,” the chance of success is slim.

But Newcomb, one of the backers of the initiatives, asked in a press release what opponents are afraid of. “Why not allow the question to go to voters, who can then settle the matter at the ballot box?’” he said.

“They are not very happy with me right now,” Stevenson acknowledged. “If they were willing to stop gathering signatures, I would be willing to stop doing what I’m doing.”

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