The Idaho Legislature: Where democracy goes to die

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

You can give no greater gift to an arch-conservative than mentioning the word “democracy” — it gives them the opportunity to puff up with pedantic glee and launch into the shopworn half-truth that, “actually, we’re a republic — not a democracy.” 

Of course, it’s not that simple, which also of course is inconvenient for people who despise democracy. Actually, we’re variously described as a “constitutional federal republic,” “representative democracy” or “democratic republic,” depending on your flavor. That means we engage in the constitutionally protected, federally organized act of direct democracy called “voting,” which results in the election of representatives who then serve on our behalf, à la, a republic.

Arch-conservatives know this, because they’re not stupid, but they hate nothing more than the trajectory of the United States since the 19th century, which has been a progressive extension of that engine of direct democracy — the ballot box — to anyone but themselves.

And if you’ve felt a chilly anti-democratic wind blowing north from Boise over the past few weeks, it’s because we’re experiencing a multi-front assault on the franchise unprecedented in the 20 years or so that I’ve been watching the Idaho Legislature.

Simultaneously, there are a number of bills at various stages of the legislative process that would actively limit who can vote, how and when. Naturally, arch-conservatives know better than to say the quiet part out loud (that they hate our democratic republic), so they shore up their totalitarian impulses with pious claims of “election integrity” and saving taxpayers money.

Here’s one: House Bill 54, co-sponsored by Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, alongside Rep. Tina Lambert, R-Caldwell. 

HB54 has the audacity to suggest that it “eliminates a source of fraud by removing student ID cards as a valid form of identification at the polls.” It also “removes the option of signing an affidavit at the polls in lieu of personal identification.”

Never mind that there is no evidence whatsoever that student ID cards have ever resulted in voter fraud in Idaho. Never mind that these cards are issued either by state institutions or those accredited by the state. All you need to know about the thrust behind this legislation is that while student IDs are somehow suspect, the license to carry a concealed weapon would remain a valid form of voter identification. HB54 would bluntly rather have concealed-carry gun owners voting than students. It doesn’t take a political scientist to know why its sponsors think that should be the case.

Here’s another: HB58, which would remove the March and August interim elections for school bonds and levies, consolidating them with the May (partisan) primaries and November general (which in Idaho is basically a Republican coronation). The reason given is that it will “likely” lead to “greater voter turnout” and cut costs — though the statement of purpose itself admits only that “there will likely be cost savings.”

Introduced by first-term Rep. Joe Alfieri, R-Coeur d’Alene, this is a bare-faced attempt to erase elections that give school districts the opportunity to go before the voters with funding requests, thereby limiting the number of chances for schools to receive funding outside the yearly budgeting cycle. Bonus: It would put school funding on the block during the high season for partisan politics. That’s the “greater voter turnout” HB58 wants to see. 

HB79, from House Speaker Mike Moyle, R-Star, and House Assistant Majority Leader Jason Monks, R-Meridian, does the exact same thing, but couches it more artfully as providing “immediate, ongoing and permanent property tax relief.” 

Finally, here are yet two more: HB75 and HB137. Both from Alfieri, the former would restrict absentee voting to active military members; those with an illness, disability or hospitalization that would keep them from the polls; those unable to vote due to work or university attendance; or those who are away from home on a religious mission. 

Alfieri said the reason for HB75 is to “reduce the number of absentee ballots, which hopefully will make the clerks’ job a little bit easier.” Sure. In no way could it be that absentee voting simply makes it easier to participate in an election, and the less participation the better. Meanwhile, the latter specifically repeals the law allowing voters to sign an affidavit testifying to their identity at the polls. This one doesn’t even bother to give an explanation for why it’s “necessary.” It’s obvious: Reducing the number of people who can access the polls.

All this is to say nothing of renewed efforts to make citizens’ initiatives harder to get on the ballot (Senate Joint Resolution 101) and the jaw-dropping suggestion by House Health and Welfare Committee Chairman John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, that Medicaid expansion approved by voters via a 2018 ballot initiative should be repealed.

Taken together, these efforts are not merely chipping away at the foundations of our political system, but represent a full-scale hammer attack. Should these bills succeed, what’s more terrifying is what will come out of the rubble: It certainly won’t look anything like a democracy or a republic.

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