A Few Thoughts on Florida

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I wanted to share a few thoughts with you about the pretty big news out of Florida this afternoon. If you haven’t already heard, the state Supreme Court signed off on two ballot initiatives which will now appear on the ballot this November: one legalizing abortion and another legalizing marijuana. This is a big deal both for the rights in question and the potential impact on the general election. So starting with the correct assumption that this is a big deal I want to note a few complexities and complications.

First, in Florida ballot initiatives have to get 60% rather than 50% of the vote. That’s a particularly big deal for abortion rights because 60% is where support tends to top out. Most of the states which have held these referendums have tended to be fairly red states. That makes sense. If they weren’t fairly red they wouldn’t have banned abortion rights or drastically limited them in the first place. So for instance, the big vote in Kansas in 2022 which kept abortion legal got 59% of the vote. The recent one in Ohio got 56.6%. Given that Florida is only recently a slightly reddish state and because its flavor of conservatism is different from those other two states, I think there’s at least an argument that abortion should poll better there. But the overall point is that 60% is a high bar and you can’t assume the initiative will win. What we should see the exact odds as I have no idea. But it’s no slam dunk.

But then there’s a nastier, darker issue. Many of you will remember that in 2018, Florida voters voted for an initiative to end felon disenfranchisement in the state. The margin was 65%. But the Florida legislature basically just said no. Specifically, the amendment to the constitution went into effect. But then the state legislature passed a law which effectively nullified it by placing a series of onerous obstacles in the way of most people actually getting the right to vote back. One of the biggest of those obstacles was needing to pay any outstanding fines or fees. There was a separate debate about whether the amendment was “self-executing.” I don’t know the exact rules the legislature operates under in these cases — whether they have a lot of freedom to do what they want or they don’t have much freedom but they took it anyway and it’s a Republican state so it didn’t matter. I suspect it was mainly the latter. But it’s still a state under pretty exclusively Republican control.

The text of this abortion initiative does seem more ironclad than the felony enfranchisement one. Maybe that makes a difference. There are too many details here about Florida law and the Florida constitution for me to really know how this would play out. But just put an asterisk on this one to remind us that the Florida legislature pulled a fast one in 2019. So there’s no ruling that out in the future.

Then we get to the question of the potential impact on the November election in Florida. I’d guess it could be fairly significant. We’ve all kind of concluded that Florida is now a red state. For Democrats that’s understandable because it’s been the scene of so many Democratic heartbreaks. But Trump won it by 1.2% in 2016 and 3.4% in 2020. The fact that Trump slightly improved his margin is definitely significant. But these are still very close margins. Winning Florida, I’ll still believe it when I see it. But with the abortion and weed amendments on the ballot I think the Biden campaign can at least make Trump fight and invest real resources in what for him is an absolutely must win state.

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