Federal court blocks FL limit on financial help for citizen’s constitutional amendment drives

By: - July 1, 2021 11:32 am

Screenshot of an out-of-state petition drive related to a school ballot initiative. Credit: YouTube.

A federal court on Thursday blocked implementation of a new Florida law capping campaign contributions that support citizen-initiated efforts to amend the Florida Constitution.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and other voting-rights interests persuaded Judge Allen Winsor, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, that the cap may cripple citizens’ ability to exercise their First Amendment rights by making it difficult or impossible to gather the signatures required by law to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the next general ballot.

In issuing the temporary injunction, Winsor wrote, in part: “Binding decisions from the United States Supreme Court and the Fifth Circuit applied those principles and concluded that the First Amendment forbids limitations like those SB 1890 imposes.”

Read the ruling here.

Petitioning is the only way for citizens to propose amendments. Recent, successful amendment drives include gradually increasing the state minimum wage to $15 per hour, restoring voting rights for ex-felons, and legalizing medical marijuana.

The new cap on campaign contributions exempts donations to political parties.

In the FL House of Representatives, GOP Reps. Bobby Payne (with mic) and Blaise Ingoglia spearheaded the cap on donations to citizen-initiated constitutional amendment drives. The cap was adopted over Democratic objections. Screenshot: The Florida Channel, April 2021

Sponsored in the 2021 Legislature by Republicans Sen. Ray Rodrigues of Lee County and Rep. Bobby Payne of north-central Florida, the cap would have taken effect today, limiting individual donations to $3,000 per campaign. Previously, there was no limit.

The Florida Division of Elections lists 31 active citizen-initiated amendment drives, 13 of them filed in 2021, all of which would be subject to the limit on contributions during the signature-gathering phase of their campaigns.

“Senate Bill 1890 is just another attempt to undermine Florida citizens’ rights and we are pleased the court blocked it from going into effect today,” said Nicholas Warren, staff attorney at the ACLU of Florida, in a statement announcing the injunction.

“The Florida Legislature has made it increasingly harder and costlier to propose citizens’ initiatives and get them on the ballot. We know this effort is unconstitutional because it violates Floridians’ First Amendment rights, and we look forward to getting the law permanently struck down.”

The ACLU, representing the Fair Elections for Democracy Campaign, argued in court that SB 1890 limits the campaign’s ability to spread its message and ideas for improving Florida’s democracy. It contends the law functionally disables campaigns from collecting the signatures needed to get their initiatives on the ballot, due to the high cost of collecting petition signatures in a state the size of Florida.

Based on current population estimates, petitioners must gather nearly 900,000 voter signatures to be permitted on a general-election ballot.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody is defending SB 1890 for the state. She argued in court the new law does not violate First Amendment rights because the cap applies only during the signature-gathering phase and not afterward.

SB 1890 has often often referred to as the “John Morgan law,” referring to the wealthy Orlando attorney who bankrolled two successful amendment drives in 2018 and 2020: legalization of medical marijuana and restoration of felon voting rights. SB 1890 would prevent anyone in the future from “buying an amendment,” said bill sponsor Rep. Payne. Democratic critics of the bill said the Republican-supported bill unfairly limits contributions to citizen initiatives but not to candidates and political parties.

Sports-betting initiative

One citizen-initiated amendment drive that may not care whether contributions are capped in the future is Florida’s newest one, to legalize sports betting, because it is well positioned to get the lion’s share of its contributions up front from multi-billion-dollar backers.

The proposed amendment is sponsored by a political action committee called Florida Education Champions, which is backed by international sports-betting corporations DraftKings and FanDuel, according to the PAC’s spokeswoman. Those corporations cannot legally operate in Florida unless state prohibitions are removed.

SB 1890’s sponsors set the law to take effect on July 1, a commonly used but arbitrary effective date. The sports-betting PAC gained state authorization to launch its drive on June 24, with seven days still available to accept unlimited contributions to its campaign before the cap would take effect.

Campaign contribution reports from the sports-betting PAC and all PACs are due today. By 3 p.m., the Division of Elections had not yet posted the report from Florida Education Champions.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper. Contact her at [email protected]

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