Florida Cracks Down On Voter-Led Ballot Initiatives

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis attends an interfaith service at Pine Trails Park in Parkland, Fla., to remember the 17 victims killed last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. (Michael Laughlin/Sun Sentinel/TNS)
Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service

Update: Gov. Ron DeSantis signed H.B. 5 into law Friday evening.

Republican lawmakers in the state of Florida voted last month to make it harder for citizens to change the constitution via ballot measures. And Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), once a Tea Party darling, will make the anti-populist House Bill 5 law unless he vetoes it by June 21.

“A direct democracy is for other places — not, namely, the United States or the state of Florida,” Rep. James Grant, a Republican from Tampa, said last month, after, on the last day of the legislative session, Republicans added legislative language affecting ballot initiatives to a bill previously focused on sales taxes.

For a state whose ballot measure to reinfranchise former felons made international headlines last year — before it was watered down by the GOP-controlled legislature — H.B. 5 places significant new restrictions on the process.

The changes are part of a recent pattern of Republican statehouses pushing to restrict ballot measures or otherwise impose new voting restrictions. Activists working on ballot initiatives in Florida told TPM that the measure would handicap their ability to pass voter-approved measures in the Sunshine State.

If Florida’s bill becomes law, petition sheets to get constitutional questions on the ballot would have to be serially numbered and printed by county supervisors of elections, copying a procedure currently used for voter registration sheets. Paid petition-gatherers would be forced to register their address with the state, and they would be prohibited from being paid per petition. Ballot initiative sponsors could be fined if they turn in petitions late — or fined $500 for petitions never turned in, or $1,000 “if the sponsor or petition circulator acted willfully.”

Karen Seeb Goldstein, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws’ Florida chapter, is one part of a pro-marijuana coalition that’s working to get language to “Regulate Marijuana in a Manner Similar to Alcohol” on the ballot. She told TPM in a phone call Friday that “the whole goal of this whole thing is to eliminate the voice of the citizens.”

“It will definitely stifle our voice, there’s no question,” she said.

Whether paid petitioners or volunteers, “people make mistakes,”Goldstein pointed out. But those mistakes, if H.B. 5 becomes law, would still have to be submitted to supervisors of elections.

“We have to pay 10 cents a piece to verify each petition,” she said. “It’s going to cost us more money.”

Kirk Bailey, the political director for the ACLU of Florida — which last month said the bill “creates unnecessary, unconstitutional, and overly burdensome obstacles” — said the group was “evaluating whether or not legal action makes sense” if DeSantis signs the bill. He noted that Florida’s ballot initiative process is already “one of the most burdensome in the country.”

Elections supervisors, who the bill would transform into government printers and petition trackers, aren’t happy either.

“This is a world of headaches waiting here for about every one of us,” the president of the Florida Association of Supervisors of Elections told floridapolitics.com last month.

Josh Altic, ballot measures project director at Ballotpedia, an online American political encyclopedia, said Florida’s bill was part of a national reaction to a recent wave of ballot measures. The 2016 election cycle, he said, saw “the highest number of citizenship initiatives since 2006.”

“Whenever the initiative process is successful — whenever you pass policies through the initiative that the legislature either doesn’t want to touch or outright opposes — then you’re going to get lash back from the legislature,” Altic said. “Because implicit in the initiative process is this conflict between voters and their elected representative legislators.”

Voting rights and civil liberties groups have called for DeSantis, whose office didn’t respond to TPM’s request for comment, to veto H.B. 5.

“This tax bill was amended at the eleventh hour to add unrelated language imposing unjustifiable barriers to citizens engaging in the political process,” the League of Women Voters of Florida wrote to the governor. “This dishonest politicking is counter to the principles of our democracy and unbecoming of our state legislature.”

“This whole mess,” the Orlando Sentinel editorial board opined, “is the product of a Legislature and special interests terrified by some of the current citizen-led attempts to change the constitution.”

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