A federal court ruling invalidating a requirement that ballot petitions need signatures from a certain percentage of voters in half of Idaho's counties will have a big impact in Nevada, an American Civil Liberties Union leader said Wednesday.
Richard Siegel, president of the Nevada ACLU, said the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling Monday is "hugely important" in Nevada because this state has a similar requirement. Siegel added that recalls as well as ballot petitions are affected.
Unless the three-judge panel decision is overturned by the full circuit court or by the U.S. Supreme Court, Siegel said, "It will effectively mean that the Nevada Constitution will have to be changed in the areas of initiatives, referenda and recalls."
Siegel said the ruling is a good one on a legal and constitutional basis. But he added he has personal qualms because "the initiative process is being taken over by commercial interests, and this decision makes it that much easier and cheaper for large commercial interests to buy the initiative process."
The Idaho decision means an initiative petition group could skip Nevada's rural counties and get enough signatures just in the population centers of Washoe or Clark counties, encompassing Reno and Las Vegas, to qualify for the ballot.
To get an initiative on the Nevada ballot, a group now must submit names representing at least 10 percent of the voters in at least 13 of the state's 17 counties. To force a recall, a conservative group now trying to recall Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn will need a total equal to 25 percent of the voters in the 2002 general election.
While groups trying to get on the ballot could avoid dealing with outlying counties, Siegel doubted whether that would mean a big increase in numbers of ballot questions.
Siegel also said that with rural and generally conservative counties left out of the signature-gathering process, the decision would tend to favor "left-of-center" groups that could focus on urban voters.
In the Idaho case, the three-judge panel unanimously held that U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill correctly threw out that state's county signature requirement on grounds it made registered-voter signatures from small counties more valuable than those from big ones.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt, writing for the panel, adopted Winmill's view that because 60 percent of the population lives in just nine counties, petition promoters could get the signatures of three-quarters of the state's population and still not gain ballot status because they wouldn't have signatures from 6 percent of the voters in half the state's 44 counties.
The ruling came in a suit filed in November 2000 by the Idaho Coalition for Bears United and other groups challenging the changes in the initiative and referendum process. The Legislature adopted the county rule at the urging of special interest groups, lead by the Farm Bureau and the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, which claimed initiatives were gaining ballot status without showing broad statewide support.
Critics claimed that it was an attempt to keep citizen petitions, which have often contradicted the views of policy makers, from reaching public votes.
The federal appellate panel said that if the state was concerned that petitions show broad-based support, it could require signatures to be gathered in a percentage of its 35 legislative districts. Those districts are set up to be relatively equal in population, and so the value of a vote in one is the same as in another.