Federal judge refuses to block Florida's ballot gathering law

“There’s no evidence that per-signature” payment increases fraud and that hourly payment “is a bulwark against fraud."

Federal judge refuses to block Florida's ballot gathering law
PHOTO BY MONIVETTE CORDEIRO
A federal judge on Thursday refused to issue a preliminary injunction to block a 2019 law that bans workers gathering petitions for ballot initiatives from being paid based on the number of signatures they collect, saying plaintiffs waited too long to ask for the law to be put on hold.

The law, passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, made it a crime to continue a longstanding practice of paying petition gatherers based on the number of signatures they collect. Experts have said the changes doubled the cost of getting initiatives on the ballot.

The law also requires petition forms to include information identifying petition gatherers, who are required to register with the state.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including the Florida Right to Pray Together committee, allege, in part, that the law is unconstitutional because the compensation restriction and personal identification requirements only apply to paid circulators working on ballot initiatives and are not imposed on workers who gather signatures for political candidates to qualify for elections.

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in January and in August filed a motion seeking a preliminary injunction to block the compensation restrictions.

But after hearing arguments Thursday, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate “urgency” required to block the law.

The Florida Right to Pray Together committee is backing a proposed constitutional amendment that would prohibit government officials from shutting down or limiting gatherings in churches and other houses of worship for longer than 21 days without approval from the Legislature. The proposal was filed with the Florida Department of State last year.

Other plaintiffs include Virginia-based Citizens in Charge. In the lawsuit, Citizens in Charge said it intends to sponsor a proposed constitutional amendment for the 2024 ballot that would allow voters to change Florida statutes through ballot initiatives. Such a proposal, however, has not been released.

Pointing to an 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in a case known as Wreal v. Amazon, Hinkle said the appeals court found that a “failure to act with urgency … undermines a finding of irreparable harm.”

Hinkle also noted the plaintiffs haven’t collected any signatures for the initiatives.

“Here it’s not just a question of how long it’s been since the lawsuit was filed. These plaintiffs haven’t made much progress on these proposed initiatives. They haven’t acted with much urgency,” the judge said.

Earlier, Hinkle pressed Paul Rossi, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, on the delay in filing the motion for a preliminary injunction.

Rossi said plaintiffs waited to gather more data before seeking the injunction.

“We wanted to have a fulsome record,” Rossi said.

The ban on per-signature payments is among a series of efforts by Republican legislators in recent years aimed at making it harder to place initiatives on the ballot. When crafting the restriction in 2019, supporters said the compensation changes were necessary to reduce fraud in ballot-initiative campaigns.

But Rossi argued Thursday that the payment restriction will prevent experienced signature gatherers, who travel throughout the country working on campaigns, from wanting to work in Florida. Those professional workers are less likely to commit fraud because they would get blacklisted in the industry, he said.

Paying by the signature also allows initiative backers to tell donors how much money they think they will need to get a proposal on the ballot, the lawyer said.

“There’s no evidence that per-signature” payment increases fraud and that hourly payment “is a bulwark against fraud,” he told the judge.

Rossi also argued that the pool of workers willing to collect signatures based on an hourly wage is limited. He said only a single company —- Advanced Micro Targeting —- pays petition gatherers by the hour instead of per signature.

But William Shepherd, who represents the Standing Up for Florida, Inc., committee, defended the law. The Standing Up for Florida committee, funded by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, in 2020 fought against a ballot initiative that would have opened the door to casinos in North Florida. The proposal did not make the ballot.

Shepherd said several petition-gathering companies pay their workers by the hour. The companies also provide benefits and bonuses to workers, Shepherd said.

Florida Right to Pray Together organizers have “made zero effort to engage volunteers” in the faith community to circulate petitions, Shepherd said. Citizens in Charge “doesn’t even have language” for a proposal, he argued.

The plaintiffs “are serial litigants who file these lawsuits all around the country,” Shepherd told the judge.

Throughout Thursday’s two-hour hearing, Hinkle repeatedly suggested that the best way to “eliminate the incentive for fraud” would be to pay workers only for valid signatures.

“If there was a system where a collector only gets paid for a valid, honest signature … that would probably be the safest way to reduce fraud,” he said.

But Karen Brodeen, an assistant attorney general representing the state, said fraud sometimes isn’t identified. For example, she said, Hinkle’s suggestion wouldn’t stop some signature-gatherers who trick people into signing multiple petitions at the same time.

Rossi, however, argued that the per-signature ban wouldn’t stop what he called the petition “stacking” issue. He said prosecuting signature gatherers who break the law would be a better way of addressing fraud.

Speaking to The News Service of Florida after the hearing, Rossi said Hinkle’s ruling will keep his clients’ proposals from making it onto the 2024 ballot.

Florida lawmakers want to make it harder to place initiatives on the ballot because the initiative process “takes power away from them,” Rossi said.

“The Legislature knew darn well that this would stop the initiative process in Florida. It has nothing to do with fraud. Everybody knows that,” he added.
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