Republicans Are Working to Undermine Direct Democracy

In working to subvert Medicaid expansion, the GOP-controlled legislature is also ignoring their constituents’ wishes

Miranda Yaver

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Idaho State Capitol Building. Photo: powerofforever/Getty Images

During the 2018 midterms, the citizens of Idaho voted by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent to approve Proposition 2, an initiative to expand Medicaid to approximately 91,000 low-income residents. The vote seemed like a victory not just for health care reform, but also for direct democracy (a catchall term for any political process that relies on citizens’ direct participation). Not only was the measure estimated to improve Idahoans’ access to health coverage, it was projected by the state itself to result in substantial savings for taxpayers. But that sense of optimism was quickly shattered: Only two months later, the Republican-controlled Idaho state legislature is actively working to dismantle the very policy voters just approved.

The Idaho state legislature quickly introduced two pieces of legislation — one to end Medicaid expansion altogether, and the other to repeal that expansion in 2023, with the purported aim to then reevaluate its cost savings. And while these legislative efforts failed in Idaho’s House Health and Welfare Committee, there are still ongoing efforts to impose Medicaid work requirements, which could result in some Idahoans losing coverage.

Republican opposition to Medicaid expansion is not exactly surprising. But it’s striking that Idaho’s Republican majority is seeking so blatantly to reverse the state’s popular will: After all, Republicans are known for their broad distaste of federal intervention. Under the Affordable Care Act, states were left with the voluntary decision of whether or not to expand Medicaid, either legislatively or through direct democracy. But, in Idaho at least, it seems like direct democracy is, in fact, not a tool for expansion.

Not all states have faced such uphill battles carrying into effect their preferred policies. In Maine, for example, voters approved Medicaid expansion via ballot initiative in 2017, and their Medicaid expansion went into effect after the election of a new Democratic governor in 2018. But Idaho is not Maine, and the Gem State’s executive and legislative branches are apparently willing to…

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Miranda Yaver

Political science prof at Wheaton College (MA). @mirandayaver