It’s not just Florida – politicians are trying to restrict citizen ballot initiatives all over the U.S.

By: - April 4, 2019 7:00 am

Republican Florida state Reps. Paul Renner (left) and Jamie Grant have a bill to dramatically restrict constitutional amendment campaigns. Colin Hackley photo.

The Florida Legislature is pushing hard line measures this year to restrict how citizens get initiatives on the ballot to amend Florida’s Constitution. It turns out that Florida is not the only state clamping down like this – Republican lawmakers are leading efforts to make it harder to do ballot initiatives across the country.

Hundreds of bills have been introduced in 27 states to threaten ballot initiatives in the past two-and-a-half years – 20 alone in 2019. Twelve states have passed legislation since 2016 to make it more difficult to get citizen-led measures on the ballot, according to the D.C.-based Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.

“There are these different tactics that we are seeing across the country to undermine the will of the people in making it much harder to either put ballot measures before voters, or flat out weakening or undermining the actual ballot measures that were passed,” says Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director with the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.

In introducing their legislation to restrict Florida constitutional amendments last week, Republican Representatives Jamie Grant from Tampa and Paul Renner from Palm Coast threw in a novel talking point – they invoked the threat that foreign adversaries like Russia or North Korea could interfere with Florida’s Constitution.

“Like me, if you are offended at a foreign adversary meddling in a presidential election, I would encourage your support to ensure that the Florida Constitution becomes immune from similar threats,” Grant told members of the Florida House Judiciary Committee, which approved the bill.

If passed, the GOP-sponsored bill would immediately imperil several key proposals already in the pipeline for the 2020 ballot. They include amendments to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, ban assault weapons, expand Medicaid to cover more of the state’s needy, and give Floridians more choice in selecting electricity providers.

None of those ideas has come close to getting passed by state lawmakers in recent years, which is why backers want to go directly to voters.

Political power, political muscle

With Florida Republicans in control of the executive, legislative and now the state Supreme Court, some analysts say the Legislature is trying to quash the last avenue available for grassroots groups in what is still nominally considered a “purple” state. So-called “direct democracy” is the only way, they say, for groups to get around the monied special interests that control the state Legislature.

“If they make this so difficult that regular citizens cannot check the three branches of government…there’s no way for regular Floridians to check the system,” says Tara Newsome, the director of the Center for Civic Learning & Community Engagement at St. Petersburg College. “This is it. “

Rich Templin, the legislative and political director of the Florida AFL-CIO union, calls the proposals to clamp down on citizen-led constitutional amendments the culmination of a 15-year campaign organized by business interests agitated by a 2004 constitutional amendment they didn’t like. The amendment raised Florida’s  minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6.15 an hour.

Changing what it takes to win

Florida is already the toughest state in America to get a constitutional amendment passed because it requires  60 percent of voters to approve it, instead of simple majority vote. And two bills in the Legislature this year would make it even harder.

The simpler of the two is sponsored by Ocala Republican Dennis Baxley in the Senate and Palm Beach County Republican Rep. Rick Roth in the House. It calls for raising the required approval to pass a constitutional amendment even more – from 60 percent of voters to 66.67 percent.

Those few percentage points could have a huge impact. For instance, there were 12 constitutional amendments on the 2018 ballot, and 11 passed. But if 66.67 percent approval were required, the majority of them would not have passed, including the historic felon voting rights initiative (Amendment 4), which won by 64.55 percent.

“Getting to 60 percent is a gigantic hurdle,” says Ben Pollara,  a Miami-based political consultant who teamed up with Orlando attorney and entrepreneur John Morgan on the constitutional amendments to legalize medical marijuana in 2014 and 2016.The 2014 medical marijuana initiative came up just three percentage points short (with 57 percent approval), prompting Morgan to open up his checkbook again to get the measure over the finish line in 2016 (when it got 71 percent approval).

“If the requirement is 66 percent and we got to 58 percent, losing by eight points is a lot different than losing by two points,” Pollara says. “And I think that there’s probably a good chance that we would not have gone back on the ballot in 2016.”

Adding more hurdles

The proposal sponsored by Reps Grant and Renner keeps the threshold to pass a constitutional amendment at 60 percent, but adds more onerous restrictions aimed at the way petition campaigns – including ones that are already in process – happen in Florida.

To qualify for the ballot now, at least 766,200 voters have to sign petitions and there’s a requirement that the signatures come from various political districts in the state.

Most groups working on ballot initiatives hire firms outside Florida to handle the complex task of signature gathering and verification. That would be outlawed under the legislation, which says  petition gatherers would have to be Florida residents, they would have to register with the Florida Secretary of State’s office, and they could no longer get paid by the number of signatures they gather.

Petition gathering is big business, because in a far-flung, diverse state like Florida, it’s nearly impossible to get the job done purely with volunteers.

The felon voting rights campaign (Amendment 4) paid nearly $4 million to the Southern California-based group PCI Consultants for petition gathering, campaign records show. Voters in Charge, a political committee backed by Disney and the Seminole Tribe designed to limit gambling options in the state, spent over $5 million for signature gathering from Nevada’s National Voter Outreach, Inc. to get Amendment 3 passed.

The bill would add even more new requirements. Amendment campaign organizers would have to:

-Include the name of the initiative sponsor and the percentage of money raised from in-state sources

-Allow “interested parties” to file 50-word “position statements” supporting or opposing a proposed amendment which the Department of State would have to post online

– Require that counties include “financial impact” statements when they mail voters sample ballots

– Include a statement in bold capital letters if passing the amendment could result in higher taxes or reduced funding for programs

– Include a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court determining whether the proposed amendment’s policy could be done by the Legislature instead of changing the constitution.

The meaning behind that last provision is unclear, since citizens groups say they go through the costly process of putting measures on the ballot precisely because lawmakers won’t address their issues through the legislative process.

“Citizen groups would not do this if we didn’t have to,” says Aliki Moncrief, Executive Director of  Florida Conservation Voters. “If the Legislature would actually do their job, we wouldn’t be doing it.”

“Fixing” what voters approved

Another way state lawmakers block citizen initiatives is tinkering with the law after voters have already approved an amendment. You can tick off a substantial list of amendments that voters approved and were later torpedoed by the Legislature, including the measure to buy conservation lands, the measure to make polluters pay for the mess they caused in the Everglades, the school class size amendment, and more.

This year, Republican lawmakers say that three constitutional amendments that voters approved  last fall – Amendment 4 (felon voting rights), Amendment 6 (victim’s rights) and Amendment 11 (a “bundled” measure which affects criminal sentencing among other things) – had ambiguous language that requires the Legislature to provide guidance with a so-called “implementing bill.”

The language in a constitutional amendment already goes through review by the Florida Supreme Court to make sure it is understandable to voters.

Rep Grant and Rep. Renner’s legislation calls for a new step that’s unclear: the Florida Attorney General would have to identify any “undefined terms” in the amendment that will have a “substantive impact.”

If not the Constitution, what?

Republicans this year are repeating an often-heard argument – that the Florida Constitution is a sacred document that shouldn’t be so easy to alter.

“It should be difficult to amend the constitution,” Rep. Grant has stressed. “There’s a reason why the U.S. Constitution only has 27 amendments.”

But their opponents say it’s the only option, because Florida doesn’t have an initiative process where citizens can propose new laws. Eighteen states have it.

This year, as in past years, Democratic lawmakers are filing bills that would allow citizens to file legislation through an initiative process. The bills haven’t moved at all.

Florida isn’t the only state that frequently amends its constitution, which it has now done 140 times, according to Ballotpedia. Alabama for example, has nearly 900 amendments to its constitution. California has more than 500, and Texas has 484, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

What’s next?

Democratic consultant Ben Pollara is working on several proposals to get on the 2020 ballot. He’s cynical about the Legislature’s new moves to restrict ballot initiatives – to put it mildly.

“It would be nice if the Legislature could be okay with thwarting the will of the people after they voted – versus beforehand,” he jokes, referring to the national criticism state Republicans are enduring as they try to “implement” the felon voting rights initiative, Amendment 4.

St. Petersburg College professor Tara Newsome warns that democracy itself is in danger if either of the proposed measures to restrict amendments passes as currently drafted. She believes that, ultimately, it would make the public less engaged in government.

“If (citizens) are not given cover with direct democracy initiatives, then there’s no hope for our democratic republic to persist,” says Newsome. “It will go from an oligarchy to a plutocracy, and there won’t be any ability to stop it.”

After the legislation to restrict amendments passed a Senate committee Monday, Democratic State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami-Dade released a statement:

“The people have used the citizen initiative process to enact positive change for Florida when Tallahassee has refused to listen,” he said. “This attack on democracy is part of a twenty year assault on the citizen initiative process by special interests dedicated to maintaining control.”

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.