Americans can be forgiven for feeling dispirited–okay, monumentally depressed–when reading headlines and listening to news. The Senate is unlikely to do anything meaningful about the daily gun massacres; Republican misuse of the filibuster has kept that august body from doing anything meaningful; we hear daily about court decisions that confirm the success of the decades-long effort to pack the federal courts with rightwing ideologues…
I could go on and on, and so can most of you reading this.
There are, however, “nuggets” of news suggesting the possibility of emerging from this period of extended stalemate.
One of those stories is emerging from Idaho, of all places. As the linked article begins,
Idaho is one of the most conservative, rural, and Republican-dominated states in the nation. It’s also on track to enact the sort of progressive economic policies that continue to elude Democrats in Washington, DC.
Earlier this month, grassroots organizers submitted what should be far more than enough petition signatures necessary to qualify a proposal called the Quality Education Act for the November ballot. The initiative, if passed, would raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy in order to fund the state’s beleaguered public K-12 school system.
A wealth tax. To support public education. In Idaho, a state where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by a 4:1 margin and Donald Trump crushed Joe Biden by 30 points. How is this happening?
The organization behind this seemingly impossible scenario is called Reclaim Idaho. Its webpage eschews the usual appeals to ideology and political identity/tribalism in favor of a simple statement focusing on the policy issue at hand, and offering “a solution to a broadly acknowledged problem.”
The current campaign follows the organization’s first success, achieved In 2018. That year, organizers and committed volunteers drove around the state in a 1977 RV painted bright green, and talked–door to door–in favor of a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid. The initiative passed with more than 60% of the vote.
With its success, Reclaim Idaho pried open access to government-sponsored health care to more than 60,000 economically challenged Idahoans and rattled the state’s political establishment. As a feel-good documentary chronicling the unlikely underdog story swept up awards at film festivals, the Republican supermajority in the Idaho legislature sought to kill future initiatives by making ballot qualification far more onerous.
Reclaim Idaho sued the state over Senate Bill 1100, which was ultimately struck down in a state Supreme Court decision that affirmed direct democracy as a “fundamental right.” The year-long legal battle cast the organization as a nonpartisan champion of democracy, which Mayville says helped generate the sort of coverage that won them a wave of new supporters and volunteers.
Reclaim Idaho builds on the belief that ballot initiatives are an important aspect of democracy, and a pathway to better policies and politics. In Idaho, support for tightly targeted initiatives are also building a long-term political infrastructure –one that doesn’t rely on corporate donors.
“We have a long-term goal of making the Idaho government more responsive to the needs of everyone and not just those with the most wealth and political influence,” Mayville explains. “To do that, we believe it’s necessary to build a constituency of voters who are going to put bread and butter issues like education funding and health care first. Initiatives get people in the habit of voting directly on these issues.”
As I have previously noted, Indiana lacks anything that could reasonably be considered home rule, and the state doesn’t have an initiative mechanism either–although some local government units do. As Ballotpedia reports,
No initiative and referendum process of any kind is available in Indiana local governments for local ballot measures.
This article sets out the laws governing local ballot measures in Indiana. It explains:
Which local units of government make the initiative process available to residents.
How and whether local units of government, including school districts, can refer local ballot measures (such as school bond propositions) to the ballot.
As a result, in Indiana and similar states, citizens cannot exercise “habits of voting directly on these issues,” and the legislature can–and routinely does–ignore public opinion.
There are certainly downsides to initiatives and referenda. (See California…where numerous ballot measures clog election ballots and offer multiple ways for well-funded campaigns to mislead voters and stir up mischief.)
I used to believe that we should leave the determination of policy to the presumably sincere and thoughtful people we elect to legislative bodies. In Indiana these days, anyone characterizing the super-majority in our legislature as “sincere and thoughtful” probably needs a mental health evaluation.
Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from Idaho, and an important one is to focus political campaigns on specific issues salient to the voters of the relevant political subdivision–a tactic that’s also likely to help get out the vote.