League of Women Voters and others call on governor to defend citizen initiatives, veto SB 1794

Excerpt from 1885 Florida Constitution. Photo edited and used with permission. Credit: State Archives of Florida.

The League of Women Voters and an alliance of public-interest groups called on Gov. Ron DeSantis Monday to veto 2020 legislation making it harder for citizens to amend the Florida Constitution.

“Florida’s legislature has taken another step towards stripping our constitution from the people and placing it into the hands of corporations, billionaires, and dark money with the passage of SB 1794,” says a letter representing 13 organizations and addressed to the governor.

“The sad truth is that because of the legislature’s efforts to restrict the citizen initiative process in the past, getting an initiative on the ballot has become a business.”

“Your veto of SB 1794 would signify that a citizens’ right to participate in direct democracy should never be up for debate.”

SB 1794 raises thresholds that trigger a Florida Supreme Court review of a proposed amendment initiated by citizens.  It requires 15 percent more voter signatures, to be gathered in more congressional districts, and signatures for initiatives that do not succeed in one year could not be carried into a second try the next year.

The letter is signed by the League of Women Voters of Florida, 1000 Friends of Florida, ACLU of Florida, Common Cause Florida, Florida AFL-CIO, Florida Conservation Voters, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, NAACP Florida State Conference, Organize Florida, Progress Florida, Sierra Club Florida, SPLC Action Fund, and New Florida Majority.

“SB 1794 gutted the citizens initiative process. It is an attack on direct democracy,” said Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters. “The burden on the voters is already onerous.”

Citizen initiative costs have been estimated to be $6.5 million to $8 million per issue, Brigham said. The new legislation would increase the costs even more, making it harder for citizens to engage but leaving well-heeled corporate interests still able to afford the higher price tag.

This year, citizen groups that petitioned to try to legalize recreational marijuana, ban assault weapons, and expand Medicaid coverage had to collect 76,620 validated signatures to qualify for a court review. Under SB 1794, they would need to collect nearly 192,000 signatures.

Citizens initiatives are responsible for the adoption of amendments such as restoration of voting rights to felons upon completion of their sentences, legal use of medical marijuana, and preserving citizens’ rights to freely use solar arrays and sell their excess energy.

Meanwhile, Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission, which proposes constitutional amendments every 20 years, survived legislative efforts this session to abolish it. It was widely criticized  for pushing confusing, “bundled” ballot initiatives.

The CRC can bundle unrelated issues into a single proposed amendment. Citizen initiatives must be proposed by single-subject only.

Bills by Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican, and Rep. Brad Drake, a north Florida Republican, to abolish the CRC advanced in their respective chambers but did not reach the finish line. Brandes’ was sidelined for a month, awaiting a Senate vote. Drake’s passed in the House.

The non-elected CRC was created to make the Florida Constitution a sleeker, more modern instrument by removing arcane language, eliminating duplications and recommending changes every 20 years, such as ensuring rights to privacy and accessible polling places.

“Instead the CRC put forth a multitude of confusing, intentionally misleading, and politically bundled amendments that do not even belong in our Constitution,” said Jim Kallinger, a former state representative from Orlando, who testified during the session on behalf of 20 former legislators calling themselves “Save My Constitution.”

“The process has been basically targeted by special interest groups who have become very sophisticated in their deceptive ads and 30-second sound bites,” Kallinger said.

Carol Weissert, director of the Leroy Collins Institute, a nonpartisan, statewide policy organization, said the institute believes the CRC should be revised, but not abolished.

“We have always believed it is an institution worth saving, but we do understand the issues that arose from the most recent CRC process,” Weissert said in a press statement.

Brandes said the bundling of unrelated ballot initiatives, as done in 2017-18, makes it impossible for voters to cast discerning votes for measures they like and against measures they dislike. For example, one recommended amendment bundled measures banning offshore drilling and regulating vaping in public.

Weissert said the institute wants to see the CRC amended to prohibit sitting elected officials from serving on the commission and changing how appointments are made, so certain officials do not dominate the process.

The League of Women Voters took no position on whether the CRC should be abolished but endorsed legislation, which failed, to prohibit the commission from bundling proposed amendments.