Invoking concerns about “foreign entities” interfering in Florida elections, a GOP-controlled committee in the House of Representatives has voted along party lines for a far-reaching proposal that would make it much more difficult for citizens to get constitutional amendments on the ballot next year.
The measure, introduced less than 48 hours ago in the middle of the fourth week of the 60-day session, would require that the people who gather petition signatures must be Florida residents, must register their information with the Secretary of State’s office, and would not be allowed to be paid per signature, as is the case currently.
To get a constitutional amendment on the ballot organizers must collect 766,200 signatures from at least 14 of the state’s 27 congressional districts. Ballot language must be approved by the Florida Supreme Court.
Tampa Republican state Rep. Jamie Grant introduced the bill, which is sponsored by the Florida House Judiciary Committee. He began his presentation by saying that there has been much discussion over the past two years about “foreign entities meddling in our presidential election,” which he said he found troubling.
“Equally troubling is the fact that those foreign entities have an open season on our constitution, should they choose to fund initiatives, gather petitions, and run a campaign something into our constitution,” he said.
Although there have been concerns about foreign actors “hacking” into the Florida voting system, there has been little to no discussion at all about foreigners buying their way into rewriting the Florida Constitution.
There has been extensive criticism, however, by Florida Republicans over the years about the ability of citizens – in some cases backed by well-funded sources – of getting constitutional amendments on the Florida ballot that the GOP-controlled Legislature has refused to address. Items like raising the minimum wage (2004), gerrymandering legislative and congressional districts (2010), buying conservation lands (2014) restricting school class sizes (2002) and giving the public the opportunity to access medical marijuana (2016).
Democrats on the committee pushed back, but because the proposal was introduced so late in the meeting, Committee Chair Paul Renner, a Republican from Palm Coast, limited the time for them to ask questions and debate the bill (although he extended the meeting for 15 minutes).
Rep. Ben Diamond, a Democrat from St. Petersburg, asked Grant if a signature-gatherer incorrectly provides their birth date to the Secretary of State’s office, would that mean that the signature collected from a registered Florida voter was now considered inadmissible?
Grant said it was.
“The constitution is a sacrosanct document,” he replied. “If somebody is not going to comply with the law to amend the constitution, perhaps they should not be engaged in modifying the law.”
“That is a significant change to our citizen initiative process,” Diamond told reporters after the meeting.
Other parts of the bill include:
– In addition to the summary of the amendment, the ballot language would include the name of the initiative’s sponsor and the percentage of financial contributions received by the sponsor from inside Florida.
– If the amendment would cost money or have an indeterminate fiscal impact, a statement in “bold capital letters that passage of the amendment may result in higher taxes or reduced funding for programs,” must be included on the ballot.
– A requirement that the Florida Supreme Court determine whether the amendment’s proposed policy can be implemented by the Legislature without the need for a constitutional amendment.
– A requirement that the Secretary of State publish position statements on proposed amendments received from “interested persons” on its website.
That provision earned a rebuke from Nicolette Springer with the League of Women Voters of Florida, who said that those would be opinions from individuals who are in appointed positions, none of whom would be elected. “And the idea that they’re not going to have a political agenda? It’s naïve for us to think they won’t.”
“It used to be that there was no time limit on gathering petitions. Then it was limited to 10 years. Now it’s only two years,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director with Florida Conservation Voters. “The regulations that have been put on citizens actually accessing the ballot, have actually made it virtually impossible to do so through sheer volunteer efforts.”
She added that since 1976, there have been 185 initiatives on the ballot, yet only 38 percent came from the public.
In fact, on the 2018 ballot, there were more constitutional amendments that came from the Constitution Revision Commission than from the public.
“How little respect for future voters who may disagree with you,” said Dave Cullen with the Sierra Club. “That is the essence of democracy.”
“It’s about the integrity of the process, and it’s making sure that we protect the process for true, grassroots initiatives,” Republican Rep. Renner told reporters afterwards, saying that the bill does say that you “can’t be a Russian or a North Korea and collect signatures. And right now there’s nothing in the law to prevent that.”
The bill will be introduced in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday afternoon.