The right of citizens to participate in our democracy is one of our country’s most fundamental values. Yet over the last decade, the Florida Legislature has been set on making it harder for citizens groups to put issues of public concern on the ballot for voters to consider.
This legislative session, a pair of Anti-Voter bills, sponsored by Rep. Jamie Grant and Sen. Travis Hutson, would be the death knell for our citizen initiative process — which is a right guaranteed to us by Florida’s Constitution. In a House committee meeting yesterday, we stood with dozens of citizens and partner organizations to oppose HB 7037. Despite the wave of opposition, the committee passed the measure along partisan lines (all Republicans in favor, all Democrats in opposition).
I can tell you from experience that the decision to pursue a constitutional amendment in Florida is not made lightly. And they are usually triggered when citizen groups see our state lawmakers failing to address issues of great public importance, like protecting our environment. In 2012, after years of extreme budget cuts to Florida’s popular science-based conservation programs like Florida Forever, conservation organizations decided to bring the issue directly to the voters. That is actually how Florida Conservation Voters got its start — as the sponsor committee to the Water and Land Conservation Amendment, which ultimately won 74.9% voter support in 2014 to dedicate nearly $2 billion over 20 years to conservation. With the Water and Land Conservation Amendment, many of our volunteers were among the first people to make financial contributions when we issued the call for reinforcements to gather petition signatures. The majority of donations we received were from individuals in Florida, and more than 1,000 of those contributions were less than $100. Between Floridians and conservation organizations, big and small, we made it to the ballot.
We know from experience how exceedingly difficult it already is to put a question on the ballot for voters to consider. It takes gathering more than 700,000 signatures in a two-year timeframe, and in a state of 20 million people, 67 counties, and some of the most brutal summer weather in the country, that is no small task. Fortunately, we were able to gather nearly one-third of the signatures through volunteer efforts. But even with a small army of dedicated volunteers, we had to turn to professional signature gatherers to help us cross the finish line.
Even once enough signatures are certified, it takes a 60% majority to pass a ballot initiative on election day.
The Anti-Voter bills sailing through the legislature this year would make it even harder for citizens to petition state government, by transforming it into a process that only billionaires and wealthy special interests will be able to afford.
For example, by cutting the timeframe for gathering signatures down to just one year, these bills would make it impossible to gather enough signatures through volunteer efforts at all. It also burdens citizen groups with additional costs to have petition forms validated and increases the threshold for Supreme Court review of the petition language from 10 to 50 percent. That drastically increases the risk of invalidating hundreds of thousands of signed petitions if the proposed amendment language requires revisions. These and other provisions of these bills are the final nail in the coffin for Florida’s citizen initiative process.
In truth, much of the damage was inflicted last year (see my Miami Herald op-ed from April 2019), when the legislature created an onerous process requiring professional signatures gatherers to register with the state. If passed, this year’s bills place additional burdens on the process that volunteer-driven, grassroots groups cannot afford.
Supporters of these Anti-Voter bills contend that changes are needed to protect against out-of-state special interests influencing Florida’s Constitution. This is the ultimate irony since these bills would make the initiative process virtually inaccessible to Florida’s citizens and grassroots groups, and instead turn it into an exclusive pathway to the Constitution for billionaires and wealthy special interests (from inside or outside Florida).
Supporters of these bills also profess that our state constitution needs protection from being overloaded with citizen initiatives. But ironically, it isn’t citizen initiatives that are clogging up our Constitution. Of the 185 constitutional amendments that have been placed on the ballot since 1976, only 38 have been citizen initiatives (116 have been legislative and the remaining via the Constitutional Revision Commission). So, the real solution to a proliferation of constitutional amendments is legislative restraint, not making the already arduous citizen-initiative process even harder.
If passed, these bills will further abridge the people’s right to petition their government. When people are petitioning to put something on the ballot, that is a core First Amendment act and it deserves the highest protection in law. Instead, these bills close the door on a fundamental right of citizens and their voice in our representative democracy. Though the bills may not directly regulate speech, they serve to limit the number of potential speakers, and the size of the audience that the proponents of a citizen’s initiative might reach (incidentally, the bills put no restrictions on groups that oppose citizen initiatives). If the Anti-Voter Initiatives bills pass, it will change government accountability in Florida forever. We cannot stand idly by.
Please join us, and our partners at the AFL-CIO, New Florida Majority, Organize Florida, ACLU, SEIU, and others to call on our state lawmakers reject these Anti-Voter bills. Tell your legislators to protect our Constitution and vote NO on HB 7037 and SB 1794 – the package of Anti-Voter bills! We find that phone calls are most effective, but we also provide users with emailing and Twitter options as well.