By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports
While each of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts has about 45,000 residents (at least at the time of the last US Census), the number of people who vote varies widely in those districts.
That has a big impact on voter initiative efforts — and if the governor signs Senate Bill 1159 and House Bill 296, those efforts will become even more disproportionate in some areas of the state.
The proposed changes to the voter initiative system — one of which has passed both the House and Senate — would raise the number of signatures required for a ballot initiative to 10 percent of “qualified electors” — in other words, registered voters — in 32 legislative districts. (House Bill 296 would lower that to 24 districts.)
Idaho currently requires 6 percent of qualified electors in 18 legislative districts sign a petition to get an initiative on the ballot.
During Tuesday’s Senate State Affairs hearing for House Bill 296, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill asked bill sponsor Sen. C. Scott Grow if Utah and other states use ten percent of registered voters, or ten percent of those who participated in the last election.
The answer: Almost all other states use turnout instead of registered voters. (Hill ultimately voted to send the bill out of committee with a do-pass recommendation.)
According to an analysis on voter initiatives by Senate intern Colin Nash, no other state requires 10 percent of registered voters. The highest threshold, Wyoming, requires 15 percent of the number of votes cast in the last general election.
There’s a key difference between registered voters and votes cast. Take Idaho’s 2018 election, for example, which saw record-breaking turnout throughout the state. Even with voter turnout hitting between 60 and 75 percent in most counties, there was a huge difference in those who could have voted and those who did.
Most of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts had between 8,000 and 9,000 registered voters who didn’t show up for the 2018 general election. That means Senate Bill 1159’s proposal of using 10 percent of registered voters instead of 10 percent of voters who participated in the last election would require 800 to 900 more signatures in those districts.
District 34, Sen. Hill’s eastern Idaho rural district, had the biggest difference between registered voters and turnout. If the proposal used 10 percent of voters who simply participated in the last election, signature-gatherers would need to get just 1,178 voters to sign on from Dist. 34. Under this proposal, that number of needed signatures more than doubles.
District 27, House Speaker Scott Bedke’s rural district, had a fairly high turnout percentage, but the lowest raw numbers of both registered voters and actual votes cast in the entire state. Signature gatherers would need 1,838 voters under the current proposal, as opposed to 1,103 under the current system.
On the other hand, bill sponsor Sen. Grow’s District 14 — located in west Ada County — had the highest raw number of registered voters in the state, with more than twice the number of registered voters and votes cast than Bedke’s District 27.
Under Senate Bill 1159, signature gatherers would need 2,000 more signatures in District 14 than in District 27.
Under the current system, signature gatherers would still have to pony up more signatures in District 14 than District 27, but only about 1,200 more.