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In 'Disheartening' Ruling, US Supreme Court Halts Citizen Initiative to Fund Education in Idaho

The order is the latest in a string of opinions overruling lower court orders to relax state election procedures due to Covid-19

Reclaim Idaho, the grassroots group behind a citizen initiative effort to put education funding on the ballot in Idaho, criss-crossed the state (pre-Covid-19) talking to voters and gathering signatures in a district-by-district statewide tour. (Photo: Reclaim Idaho/Facebook)

In a blow to grassroots efforts to put education funding on the ballot in Idaho in November, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ordered organizers to stop collecting signatures statewide—a potential setback for other local initiatives across the country under attack from right-wing and Republican forces.

"It is deeply disheartening that the highest court in our nation has decided to clamp down on a grassroots campaign in Idaho—a campaign made up of thousands of ordinary citizens who are simply trying to make Idaho a better place for their children and grandchildren."
—Luke Mayville, Reclaim Idaho
In response to the court's decision, Reclaim Idaho, the group behind the citizen initiative, announced the suspension of its campaign entirely.

"With the Court's decision, and with the Governor and Secretary of State determined to block our efforts, it is highly unlikely that our initiative will see the November ballot," Reclaim Idaho cofounder Luke Mayville wrote in an email to supporters on Friday. "Regretfully, we see no other option than to suspend our signature drive."

Mayville, along with Garret Strizich, co-founded Reclaim Idaho in 2017 and launched a successful statewide Medicaid Expansion citizen initiative in 2018. Reclaim then helped pressure Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, to veto a GOP-led attempt to increase restrictions and requirements for Idaho's citizen initiative process in 2019 before turning their focus to education funding in 2020.

With the help of attorneys representing the group pro-bono, Reclaim filed a lawsuit in District Court in June—after the Covid-19 outbreak and a statewide stay-at-home order interrupted their in-person signature collection operation—asking to collect signatures electronically for the education initiative.

In response to the suit, a U.S District Court judge in July offered Gov. Little and Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, also a Republican, the choice to either allow electronic signature gathering or simply put the initiative on the November ballot.

Even as the new e-signature gathering commenced, however, the Republican leaders immediately challenged the ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals—where the case remains pending—and went directly to the U.S. Supreme Court to demand a stay on the order issued by the District Court.

Thursday's ruling to grant the stay, issued by Chief Justice John Roberts with strong dissent from Justice Sonya Sotomayor, is the second time this month—and at least the fourth time since Covid-19 arrived in the U.S.—that the nation's highest court has intervened to block a lower-court order to relax state election procedures due to the pandemic.

As Amy Howe wrote Thursday for SCOTUS Blog:

On July 2, the justices granted a request by Alabama to block a lower-court ruling that would have made it easier for voters in the state to cast absentee ballots in the state's primary election runoff. That ruling came a few days after the court denied a request from the Texas Democratic Party to temporarily reinstate a lower-court ruling that would have allowed all voters in the state to vote by mail without an excuse because of the Covid-19 pandemic. And in April, the justices granted a request by the Republican National Committee and the Republican Party of Wisconsin to block a lower-court order that had extended the deadline for absentee ballots to be submitted in that state’s April election.

These rulings come amidst a nationwide conversation about how to safely and fairly hold elections during the Covid-19 crisis, and as President Donald Trump fuels the false claim that mail-in voting is rife with fraud.

"We are shocked that the Court has made this extraordinary intervention rather than let the normal appeals process run its course," Mayville wrote in his email to supporters Friday. "It is deeply disheartening that the highest court in our nation has decided to clamp down on a grassroots campaign in Idaho—a campaign made up of thousands of ordinary citizens who are simply trying to make Idaho a better place for their children and grandchildren."

Idaho consistently ranks last or next to last in per pupil education spending. Gov. Little continues to push for reopening Idaho's schools for in-person learning this fall even as Covid-19 cases soar in parts of Idaho and around the country.

On Friday, less than 24 hours after celebrating the SCOTUS ruling on the Invest in Idaho initiative effort, the governor—with no apparent sense of irony—appealed to constituents for help garnering laptops for the Gem State's students, a gross hypocrisy that Mayvillle wasted little time in pointing out.

The proposed Invest in Idaho initiative sought to raise $170 million for K-12 education by increasing taxes on corporations and personal income over $250,000 per year for an individual and $500,000 per year for a married couple. According to Reclaim Idaho, that would have meant no tax increase for 19 out of 20 Idahoans while offering a major boost to schools and educators across the state.

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