State Lawmakers Fight Citizen Initiatives

MIAMI—UNION STAFFER Angie Nixon racked up tons of unpaid overtime to help put Medicaid expansion on the 2020 Florida ballot.  The Jacksonville woman sacrificed time with her daughter, a precocious pre-teen who texted her mom advice during speaking gigs. For many months Nixon worked 50-to-75-hour weeks coordinating the training of volunteers to collect petition signatures.

To Nixon, who once had to rely on Medicaid, the campaign was personal. It would potentially provide Affordable Care Act insurance to an estimated 805,000 nonelderly adult Floridians, according to a study by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. “There were folks who were sick who were working on this initiative,” Nixon says. So when the effort failed in mid-2019 because funding ran out, she was deeply disappointed. 

“It was frustrating to know that folks were playing with people’s lives like it’s all about politics and it’s not really about the quality of life for people anymore,” Nixon says. “It’s about how much money these big corporations can make.”

For the past two years, Florida’s dominant Republican politicians have been erecting barriers to citizen initiatives, direct actions that shape public policy and constitutional amendments. These populist campaigns have, for example, given ex-convicts the right to vote and put a cap on certain tax assessments. Republicans and their allies oppose them on the basis that they clutter up the Florida Constitution unnecessarily.

There were already plenty of built-in challenges to the citizen initiative process.
For starters, sponsors must canvass for hundreds of thousands of signatures to fill petitions from every corner of the state. Then the Florida Supreme Court determines whether the proposal’s language is targeted and clear. If it passes that test, the proposal lands on the next general election ballot. A supermajority, 60% of voters, must approve it.

“There are many, many hurdles in terms of getting anything passed,” says Anjenys Gonzalez-Eilert, Florida executive director of Common Cause, the nonpartisan democracy watchdog. “Florida ballots can have pages and pages and pages. Sometimes people get voter exhaustion,” she says.

“Often the language is designed to mislead: It means the opposite of what it says. In the best case, once it’s on the ballot, you have to get voters to read it, understand it and be willing to cast a vote for it,” Gonzalez-Eilert says.

Even with volunteer help, campaigns are expensive. “They say it costs $25 million to win a ballot initiative in Florida. That’s ridiculous,” says Roxey Nelson, political director of SEIU Florida. The 55,000-member public service employees union supported the failed Medicaid expansion campaign.
“It’s impossible for regular folks to raise the money to put that infrastructure together,” Nelson says. “If people didn’t need to do this, if the Legislature was working for us, no one would be spending this kind of money.”

Last year, legislators made initiative campaigns more expensive by mandating hourly pay for signature gatherers. Canvassers had been paid by the signature.
This session legislators are trying again to burden the process. Bills under active consideration would greatly increase the number of required petition signatures and add other new regulations.

Those bills threaten to “gut” the system, says Patricia Brigham, president of the Florida League of Women Voters. “It’s voter suppression,” she says.
Gonzalez-Eilert agrees. “If you’re trying to silence the community from voting on the issues that matter to them, you’re putting up unnecessary hurdles to what end?”

“What are they trying to accomplish?” she asks. “This is a solution in search of a problem.”
State Sen. Travis Hutson, a Republican representing St. Augustine, is sponsoring SB 1794, which would increase the signature requirement from 10% to 33% of all votes cast in the prior presidential election. The signatures would have to come from two-thirds of Florida’s 27 congressional districts.

Hutson denies any intention to suppress voting. He says Florida taxpayers are being forced to subsidize “campaigns that they do not support – initiatives such as banning abortions or assault weapon bans” and he wants this to end.

“We want to focus more on transparency and ballot initiatives and making sure that voters actually understand what is being put in front of them,” Hutson said in a written response to U.S. News. “It is important when people are amending the Florida Constitution that they are told what kind of fiscal impact that kind of proposal will have.”

Separately, on Feb. 20 the Florida Supreme Court approved a proposal for the November ballot that requires all future constitutional amendments to achieve supermajority votes in two consecutive general elections.

The “pass it twice” proposal’s sponsor is a political committee funded by a nonprofit with the same name, Keep Our Constitution Clean (KOCC). The directors are Fort Lauderdale lawyers Jason Haber and Jason Blank and Miami lawyer Matthew Meyers. Haber and Blank have a civil law firm that lists ballot initiatives as a practice area and unidentified elected officials as clients, according to the Haber Blank website.

Brigham of the League of Women Voters calls the KOCC proposal “an outrageous, deliberate attempt to confuse the voters.”

“This could be devastating,” Gonzalez-Eilert says. “We don’t have to elect our president twice, we don’t have to elect our senator twice. What do we have to elect twice?”

“It will make voters second-guess themselves,” she says. “If it’s on the ballot twice, they’ll think, maybe it’s not such a great thing.”

As for KOCC, “We don’t know who’s running this and why. Why not tell us who you are, what are you afraid of? If this is such a good thing, then tell us – but they don’t,” Gonzalez-Eilert says.

KOCC is as transparent as it needs to be, according to responses from spokesperson Sarah Bascom. The political committee “lists all contributions and expenditures as required by Florida law,” she says. The committee’s report to the Florida Secretary of State declares a total of about $9 million in monetary and in-kind contributions as of the end of January. Only one contributor’s name is listed: the nonprofit Keep Our Constitution Clean Inc. Bascom did not reply when asked who funds the nonprofit.

She offers a constructive motive for the initiative, saying, “Requiring a proposed amendment to appear on the ballot twice gives both supporting and opposing interests, grassroots activists, and the press more time to educate voters about the implications of an idea.”

Nevada is the only state that has a double-passage requirement, says Elena Nunez, director of ballot measure strategies for Common Cause. She says even without it, Florida tops the list of states where legislators have crippled citizen initiatives.

“The Florida example is extreme but it’s not unique,” Nunez says, citing similar legislative actions in Michigan, Missouri and Colorado. Generally they’re a backlash to a successful initiative, she notes. “We see a troubling trend of legislatures responding to popular measures by trying to limit the initiative process going forward,” Nunez says. “Now, in addition to undermining the will of the voters directly, there’s also an effort to change the rules.”

Over the past two and a half years, hundreds of anti-initiative bills have been introduced in 27 states, and since 2016 a dozen states have passed legislation making it harder to put citizen-generated measures on the ballot, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.

Florida’s backlash followed the 2018 passage of Amendment 4, which restores voting rights to former convicts. The debate continues with an ongoing legal challenge to financial requirements for voting that activists liken to a discriminatory “poll tax.”

Fearing the new voters would favor Democrats, Republican legislators added a fines and fees payment caveat to sabotage the amendment, the activists charge.
Hutson denies legislators harbor any ulterior motives. Gonzalez-Eilert says they’re making systemic changes to preserve their power.

“The fact that Amendment 4 was overwhelmingly supported by Floridians let them know that Floridians have an interest in the way they’re being governed,” she says. “Citizens don’t want to have their voices silenced, they want to participate. If you want to be the sole source of power, that would rub you the wrong way.”

Neil Volz, co-founder of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the main force behind Amendment 4, hasn’t reached his goal of civic engagement for all “returning citizens.”

Yet he seems undeterred. “Almost every day I get a text or a phone call from somebody who’s just gotten registered to vote, so I’m continually reminded of the promise of Amendment 4 and the ability of people to fully participate in the community,” he says.

“We know that, just as it took us a long time to get here, we’ve got a long way to go,” Volz says. “But every day we get to see democracy expanded.