Democracy and its Opposite
An Open Letter to Senator Cheatham on Idaho’s S1159
I’m writing from Post Falls with a question about your support of Senate Bill 1159. I’m a graduate of Post Falls High School, in your district, and of Boise State, and I’m alarmed not just at your position on Idaho voter initiatives, but also at how few people seem to know about it. I’d love to change your mind, but I don’t expect to do that. My aim in publicly posting this is to bring some attention to your vote that will help North Idahoans make informed judgments about what you stand for and who should represent them. I’d also like to say at the outset, to be transparent, I’m not currently a constituent of yours, since I’m living in Michigan most of the year for graduate school. Your response will nonetheless be valuable to Idaho voters.
To anyone reading this without the backstory, here’s what S1159 would have done. Idaho is one of 26 states in which voters, not just politicians, can propose laws. Article III, Section 1 of the Idaho Constitution establishes that “people reserve to themselves the power to propose laws, and enact the same at the polls independent of the legislature.” Today, getting a proposed law on the ballot requires clearing three hurdles–a certain number of signatures, in a certain number of districts, in a certain number of days. S1159 would have made each hurdle higher, requiring almost twice the signatures in twice the districts in half the time, crippling a constitutionally protected power of Idaho voters, and making citizen proposals “more difficult than qualifying a ballot initiative in any of the other 26 states that have the right. By far.”
Where to begin? I’d like first, for a moment, to speak directly to any Republican readers who might have found this. S1159 is not about party. It has divided Idaho Republicans. Ten Republican senators voted against the bill, and the Republican governor ultimately vetoed it, yet Senator Cheatham supported it. Nor is this about partisan issues like gun control or health care. It’s one thing to have good-faith disagreements about those ideologically charged questions. But I’m writing because of the stake we all share in self-governance. To put things in terms that are grandiose but true: This is about the nature and future of the democracy through which Idahoans decide what becomes law. Changes to our democracy itself, especially changes this drastic–changes that distance voters from laws–deserve vigilance from all of us.
On a visit to Boise last week, I listened in literal disbelief as a friend recounted the S1159 story. I did not believe the bill could be as starkly cynical and anti-democratic as it sounded. How could anyone get away with that in a state that so cherishes its liberties? I also read once, years ago, that one ought not assume that once you’ve found the most sinister possible motive for someone that you’ve found the right one, and I believe that often, though not always, narratives of war between justice and corruption are more subtle than they first appear once you’ve heard both sides. So I asked how the advocates of S1159 defend it. I’d like to address what I now see as the strongest case for S1159.
Take the bill’s stated aims. “The purpose of this legislation,” it reads, “is to increase voter involvement in the initiative/referendum process and to require additional explanatory information during the process and on the ballot.” The idea, as I understand it, is to force petitioners to get more signatures from small towns and rural counties, which are currently overlooked in favor of more populated places like Boise. That’s the argument. It sounds sensible enough, but, first of all, to characterize initiatives as anti-rural is misleading–each Idahoan gets one vote on each proposal, as they should, just as each Idahoan gets one vote for governor. Ballot initiatives are no more biased than general elections, because initiatives are decided during general elections. No initiative becomes law without coming equally before all of Idaho. But this dispute, truthfully, is unimportant compared to the core contradiction in S1159.
Here’s where the argument collapses on its own terms. Suppose we grant that S1159’s proponents want what they say they want, more rural participation. Then why, Senator Cheatham, did you vote to CUT the time allowed to collect signatures? If you wanted more rural engagement, you would allow more time for petitioners to get into the mountains and the acreage outside of the cities. S1159 halves the time allowed to petition! To advance this bill in order to “increase voter involvement” is an abject Orwellian abuse of language that I’m saddened to see trafficked in Idaho. It’s like the legislature passed a bill who’s stated purpose is to “improve Idaho fitness” but that by law cuts the time for gym class in half. The logic is that absurd. When there’s that much space between the legislature’s words and its actions, there must be something more going on.
The inescapable conclusion is in fact the obvious and troubling one, which I’ve tried and failed to find a well-reasoned path around. Yesterday, looking once more for an impartial picture, I called a former Boise State classmate who’s thoughtful and I know has no partisan loyalties. “I can’t find a good argument for it,” he told me, “And I’ve looked. It’s just vindictive.” You are surely aware of how this all appears, Senator Cheatham. It looks like Republican legislators lost a fair fight on the Medicaid expansion initiative, and rather than fight harder next year, they tried to tamper with election law, because with a near-monopoly on political power in Idaho, they can. They can re-write the rules of the game they lost so that it never happens again, or better yet, with S1159, just shut the game down.
I used to think of politics as a principled clash of visions about the well-being of our society. At its best, it is. But I’ve learned that sometimes it’s simpler than that. Sometimes politicians with concentrated power will do whatever they can to get their way, unless we’re watching. It’s up to us to stop this from happening in Idaho. S1159 is unprincipled but will not go unnoticed. To Idaho readers, please call or write your representatives to talk through their views on S1159 and decide whether what you hear is in your interest or theirs. I believe you deserve much, much better. You can get involved here. To Senator Cheatham, I look forward to your response, and I urge you to oppose similar measures in the future and protect democracy in Idaho.