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Why file a lawsuit over deceptive initiative titles?

| July 13, 2023 1:00 AM

It is said that you can’t judge a book by its cover, which often turns out to be true, but you have to read the book to learn the truth. However, if the cover is the only thing you ever see, it can give you a false impression as to the content of the book. The same thing happens when voters are asked to sign an initiative petition. The titles, which Idaho law requires to be true and impartial, may well influence whether voters will add their signature to the petition or vote for it on election day. Misleading titles can help sink a worthy initiative. That's why Idahoans for Open Primaries (IOP) has filed suit to change the deceptive titles that the Attorney General’s office conjured up for the Open Primaries Initiative.

Signature petitions are required to have two ballot titles — a short descriptive title of no more than 20 words, which appears at the bottom of each signature page, and a general title of no more than 200 words, which explains the purpose of the initiative. The law specifically provides that the titles “shall not be” likely to create prejudice against the initiative. Most people will likely see the short title and make their decision to sign based on that and what they learn about it in the media. Few will read the initiative text.

The titles that Mr. Labrador proposed for the Open Primaries Initiative violate Idaho law because they are deceptive and designed to create prejudice against the measure. The purpose of the initiative is simply to end closed primaries and allow all Idaho voters to participate in electing our leaders. But Labrador’s short title says: “Measure to (1) replace voter selection with nonparty blanket primary; (2) require ranked-choice voting for general elections.” The longer general title carries through with these same themes, starting with this introduction: “This measure proposes two distinct changes to elections for most public offices.”

The Attorney General is setting the stage for a campaign of confusion and deception against the initiative. By repeatedly claiming that the initiative deals with two separate subjects — primary elections and general elections — he reaches the absurd conclusion that it violates what is called the single-subject rule in the Idaho Constitution. If the rule was so unreasonably restrictive, a good deal of the laws currently on the books would also violate that rule. It’s like contending that your bacon and egg breakfast is two separate meals. The initiative deals with a single subject — elections.

Labrador’s letter accompanying the titles tells the tale. He threatens to sue on a single-subject claim if the initiative is placed on the ballot. It is a lawsuit he would lose without IOP’s attorneys having to work up a sweat. He is dead wrong on the law that applies, confusing constitutional amendments with legislative acts.

The claim that the open primary called for in the initiative is a “blanket” primary is also blatantly false. Labrador’s staff could merely have checked with Ballotpedia, or some other election-savvy source, to learn that a typical blanket primary would send the top vote-getters of each party that participated in the primary to the general election. Labrador used the false designation to create confusion because the U.S. Supreme Court declared California’s blanket primary unconstitutional in 2000. However, in 2008 that same court approved a system similar to the one proposed in the IOP initiative.

It is clear that the AG’s game plan is to throw up enough smoke about the constitutionality of the Open Primaries Initiative to confuse and prejudice voters against it. His arguments are transparently wrong and Idaho voters should not be fooled.

The Open Primaries Initiative calls for non-partisan primary and general elections open to all candidates and all voters, regardless of party affiliation. If Idaho voters approve the initiative in the 2024 election, it will tip the balance against the most extreme candidates vying for office in the 2026 elections, including the office of Governor. That could certainly explain Mr. Labrador’s strident opposition to allowing all voters to have a say in electing Idaho’s leaders.

Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho Attorney General (1983-1991) and 12 years as a Justice on the Idaho Supreme Court (2005-2017).