DeSantis: Let’s hold separate elections to decide constitutional amendments

Voting booths in Leon County
Voting booths in Leon County. Mitch Perry/Florida Phoenix

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday defended a new law that will make it more difficult to amend the Florida Constitution through petition drives, and suggested the state might someday stage separate elections on proposed amendments to the Florida Constitution.

During a news conference in Jacksonville, DeSantis suggested staging “stand-alone” elections to vote on citizens’ initiatives, which would reduce the number of decisions confronting voters on election day.

“It would maybe cost a little more money for the state,” the governor said, but “you would be able to probably get a more crisp decision.”

That could drive down voter participation in amendment drives, if historical precedent stands. Special elections traditionally feature lower turnouts. Even off-year elections – when Florida chooses its chief executive – attract fewer voters compared with presidential cycles. The turnout was 63 percent last year, compared to 75 percent in 2016.

A new law, HB 5, bans paying people circulating petitions per signature and provides criminal penalties for failing to turn in signed petitions or filing them late. DeSantis signed the bill Friday. Additionally, petitioners would have to live in Florida and register with the state.

The provisions “are exactly the same that you would have if you were doing absentee ballots,” he said. “There’s voter integrity that’s a part of that. This is not supposed to be driven by out-of-state special interests. It’s supposed to be driven by Floridians.”

The old system includes “a lot of bad incentives,” he said.

“What’s being done now is, you have a bunch of out-of-state people. It’s a major cottage industry funded by special interests,” DeSantis said.

Moreover, Florida’s ballots are too long, the governor said. The 2018 ballot contained elections for U.S. Senate, governor, three Cabinet positions, and a variety of state legislative and local government races, plus 12 proposed constitutional amendments – of which eight were proposed by the Constitution Revision Commission, the rest by citizens’ initiatives.

DeSantis wants to abolish that commission, which meets every 20 years to consider whether Florida’s government charter wants amending. Last year, the panel drew criticism for “bundling” disparate proposals into single proposed amendments – a process the Florida Supreme Court has allowed.

“Voters are fatigued with this. The ballots are too long. I had people who would follow politics, they’re like, ‘I don’t understand – why do you have offshore drilling and vaping in the same amendment?’ I have no idea why,” he said.

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