The Florida legislature is waging war on citizens’ petitions.

Howard L. Simon

Howard L. Simon

The legislature got it with the intrusion on their power by the people of Florida.

In the last session, lawmakers passed the Senate Bill 1890, a harsh measure aimed at preventing citizens from collecting petitions in favor of constitutional amendments by limiting financial contributions that are the oxygen of political movements .

The latter restriction places a cap of $ 3,000 on contributions to committees working to submit a constitutional amendment to voters or opposing a proposed amendment, is being challenged in federal court.

Unsurprisingly, on July 1, the day the law was due to come into force, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction.

For more than 50 years, Floridians have had the right to “propose the revision or amendment” of their constitution by petition of initiative. Essentially, it allows people to go over the heads of lawmakers, straight to voters, when they are frustrated by the inability or unwillingness of the legislature to resolve issues.

And boy, has the legislature felt both the intrusion into its authority and the policies put forward by the people.

Lawmakers fought the people’s proposals and, after they were passed, did what they could to weaken what voters approved when the people took power to:

  • Dedicate funds to a trust to purchase land for conservation purposes
  • Reduce the size of the class.
  • Enact Fair District amendments to prohibit partisan gerrymandering.
  • Authorize the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
  • Demand a gradual increase in the minimum wage.
  • Restore the right to vote for those convicted of felony.

To understand the legislative assembly‘s institutional hostility to direct democracy, it helps to see the forest and not just the last tree. Remember some of the weapons that lawmakers have used to hinder and frustrate the people’s right to change their constitution:

  • Ban on collecting petition signatures near polling stations (where registered voters can be found).
  • Require sponsors of constitutional amendments, but not election candidates, to pay to verify signatures.
  • Require Secretary of State’s approval of the text of a proposed amendment and of the voting summary.
  • Require each signature to be on a separate sheet of paper rather than allowing multiple voters to sign on a single sheet
  • Reduced the expiration date of valid signatures from four to two years.
  • Mandate the Supreme Court’s review of the language of a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment, but not amendments proposed by the legislature.
  • Prohibition of paying petition distributors by signature.
  • Allow electronic signatures on candidate petitions, but not citizen-initiated constitutional amendments.

The attorney general (who has the unenviable burden of defending laws enacted by the legislature, whether stupid or unconstitutional) claimed that the latest push to quash citizen-initiated constitutional amendments is just a “cap.” temporary and targeted (imposed only in the first at the stage of collecting the petition) and designed to ensure that the proposed amendments have broad support and are not the project of a few donors with deep pockets. (John Morgan’s name is mentioned often here, as if he was the only well-heeled sponsor or opponent of a constitutional amendment in Florida history.)

Note a bit of hypocrisy buried in this attempt to limit contributions that “would limit debate and discussion of a ballot measure,” as the courts have characterized such efforts.

For many conservatives, money is often defended as a form of speech. But as the Supreme Court noted decades ago, “limits on contributions which in turn limit spending clearly infringe freedom of expression.” That is, all speech is protected. It cannot be acceptable for lawmakers to limit speech because it promotes progressive goals.

In granting the preliminary injunction, the federal judge cited two decisions that have governed for the past 40 years, one from the United States Supreme Court. Both argue that a limit on contributions to voting measures “undermines freedom of expression”.

The fact that the legislature has passed the contribution limit anyway is one strategy, employed in this and other areas of law, by which the legislature hopes to induce the courts of appeal (and perhaps the Supreme Court of United States) to drop precedents and change the law.

Equally disturbing was Governor Ron DeSantis’ reaction to the injunction.

He said he was convinced the state would prevail when he got to the court of appeal. In this, it fuels the cynicism that erodes respect for the rule of law, namely that what the law is depends on the policy of the judges hearing the case. His comment suggested that he expected the preliminary injunction but that his real audience is the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has a majority of judges appointed by Republican presidents, including six appointed by the United States. former President Trump. But it is interesting that the federal judge who prohibited the entry into force of the law.

Hopefully, in the event of an appeal, the injunction will be upheld by the court of appeal. But our rights should not depend on the expectation that the courts will uphold constitutional principles.

Did your state representative and senator vote to restrict your rights by approving SB 1890? Probably: 75 state officials and 23 senators said yes.

Remember this for the next election.

Howard L. Simon was executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida from 1997 until his retirement in 2018 after the constitutional amendment, which he helped draft, restoring the right to vote for those who have served their criminal sentence.

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