Idaho is one of the most conservative, rural, and Republican-dominated states in the nation. It’s also on track to enact the sort of progressive economic policies that continue to elude Democrats in Washington, DC.
Earlier this month, grassroots organizers submitted what should be far more than enough petition signatures necessary to qualify a proposal called the Quality Education Act for the November ballot. The initiative, if passed, would raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy in order to fund the state’s beleaguered public K-12 school system.
A wealth tax. To support public education. In Idaho, a state where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by a 4:1 margin and Donald Trump crushed Joe Biden by 30 points. How is this happening?
Giving people something to vote for
Enter Reclaim Idaho, a grassroots organization that is determined to change the politics of a state long controlled by right-wing extremists with little interest in representative democracy.
The education initiative is off to a promising start. Reclaim Idaho’s volunteers and canvassers were able to collect signatures of support from nearly 100,000 eligible voters, soaring past the 65,000 required by the state. Just under 870,000 Idahoans voted in 2020.
Idaho’s initiative laws also demand that many of those signatures come from far-flung rural districts, which tend to be deep red and home to factions of far-right extremists. That was no problem, either.
The door-to-door signature-gathering campaign fostered tens of thousands of face-to-face conversations, which allowed canvassers to directly pitch the populist plan to bolster a school system that ranks dead last in funding per student. Not that they needed much convincing — Idahoans regularly rank education as the most pressing issue facing the state.
“There's a widespread recognition that the tax burden is falling unevenly on middle- and lower-income Idahoans and that the highest earners and large corporations can afford to pay more for essential programs,” Luke Mayville, the co-founder of Reclaim Idaho, tells Progress Report. “For many people, the opportunity to increase funding for education was all that mattered; they were willing to pay more in taxes themselves for it. For others, it was a reasonable plan because they knew they weren't the ones paying it.”
The initiative calls for bumping the corporate income tax from 6.5% up to 8%, while also creating a new tax bracket for individuals that earn more than $250,000 a year and couples that together top half a million dollars.
Click HERE to Donate to Reclaim Idaho via ActBlue!
That such a progressive initiative has been so enthusiastically received in such a deep-red state is further evidence that populist policy can be a political winner everywhere — so long as the messaging and campaign both factor in the nuance of local sentiment.
In Idaho, which boasts the second-lowest income inequality gap in the nation, it was offering a solution to a broadly acknowledged problem that got people on board.
“It's not entirely clear that Idaho voters want higher earners and corporations to pay more taxes in the abstract,” Mayville says, “but what is clear is that if there is a need like public school funding, and voters understand that the money has to come from somewhere, they're willing to call on the highest earners and corporations to do more.”
The Quality Education Act leaves no ambiguity about the benefits that the initiative would offer: The new taxes would raise an additional $300 million per year, which would be distributed to public school systems across the state. The school systems would be permitted to allocate the money toward perennially underfunded programs — think arts, sciences, and trade skills like carpentry — and increasing pay for teachers and school staff.
Both ballot initiative campaigns run by Reclaim Idaho have eschewed ideology for detailed policy solutions offering tangible help to a broad constituency.
Door-to-do for direct democracy
In 2018, Mayville and a few other organizers drove around the state in bright green RV that first rolled off the lot in 1977, traversing vast expanses of countryside to speak with voters about a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid. Riding the determination of a wheezing RV and a team of committed volunteers that knocked on doors all across the state, the initiative passed with more than 60% of the vote.
With its success, Reclaim Idaho pried open access to government-sponsored health care to more than 60,000 economically challenged Idahoans and rattled the state’s political establishment. As a feel-good documentary chronicling the unlikely underdog story swept up awards at film festivals, the Republican supermajority in the Idaho legislature sought to kill future initiatives by making ballot qualification far more onerous.
Click HERE to Donate to Reclaim Idaho via ActBlue!
Reclaim Idaho sued the state over Senate Bill 1100, which was ultimately struck down in a state Supreme Court decision that affirmed direct democracy as a “fundamental right.” The year-long legal battle cast the organization as a nonpartisan champion of democracy, which Mayville says helped generate the sort of coverage that won them a wave of new supporters and volunteers.
Should the education initiative pass this fall, Mayville anticipates that Republicans in the state capitol will pursue legislation to repeal it. That wouldn’t be unprecedented — the GOP in Arizona did it after a successful 2020 initiative — and Idaho’s election system actually incentivizes that sort of mean-spirited, reactionary approach. With a crimson red electorate and closed primaries, politicians typically focus on appealing to a thin slice of the most committed right-wing voters.
With legions of white nationalists pouring into the state intent on seizing power, a legislature that regularly eliminates basic environmental regulations and criminalizes anything that offends religious reactionaries, creating a countervailing force is an urgent priority.
For Reclaim Idaho, ballot initiatives are an antidote to the throttling of democracy, a way to reintroduce government as a force for good, and a pathway to a more considered politics. They also build a long-term political infrastructure unbeholden to corporate donors and unburdened by the long-term stink of failure.
“We have a long-term goal of making the Idaho government more responsive to the needs of everyone and not just those with the most wealth and political influence,” Mayville explains. “To do that, we believe it's necessary to build a constituency of voters who are going to put bread and butter issues like education funding and health care first. Initiatives get people in the habit of voting directly on these issues.”
It’s an important first step, and one that provides a blueprint for organizers everywhere.
“Our hope, and our longer-term theory of change, is that once voters get in that habit,” Mayville says, “they'll be much more likely to evaluate candidates with those issues directly in mind.”
P.S. This is adapted from a piece in my newsletter, Progress Report. The newsletter focuses in depth on progressive politics and policy, including lots of coverage of state governments you won’t get elsewhere, and holds bad Republicans accountable.
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