PHOTO BY MONIVETTE CORDEIRO
Groups seeking to place proposed constitutional amendments on the 2024 ballot are urging a federal judge to reject the state's arguments defending a law that prevents paying petition gatherers based on the number of signatures they collect.
The law, passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2019, has dramatically increased the costs of petition initiatives, which require submission of nearly 900,000 signatures to be placed on the ballot.
Before the law, political committees supporting initiatives were able to pay workers for each signature they obtained, as is common in most states that allow voters to decide on citizen-backed proposed constitutional amendments.
A federal lawsuit alleges the Florida restrictions on the ballot-initiative process impose a “severe and unconstitutional impairment” of First Amendment and equal-protection rights.
Plaintiffs in the challenge include the Florida Right to Pray Together committee, which is seeking to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2024 ballot, and its chairman, John Louden. The committee’s proposal would limit the ability of state lawmakers to curtail religious gatherings, according to the lawsuit.
Virginia-based nonprofit Citizens in Charge also is a plaintiff in the challenge. The group intends to sponsor a proposed constitutional amendment for the 2024 ballot that would allow voters to change Florida statutes through ballot initiatives.
Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office in March asked U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing in part that the plaintiffs did not provide adequate information to back up equal-protection and First Amendment claims.
But in a response filed this week, lawyers for the plaintiffs contended that the law unconstitutionally imposes restrictions on ballot-initiative backers that do not apply to the petition-gathering process for legislative candidates, who can gain access to the ballot if they collect enough signatures.
“Plaintiffs invite the court to take note that state legislators, who want to be able to collect signatures for their own nomination petitions, refused to apply the same restriction to the circulation of their own ballot access petitions,” lawyers for the plaintiffs wrote in a brief filed Monday. “It is obvious that the new rules are specifically designed to inhibit the ability of voters to connect with initiative petition circulators to advance an agenda outside the control of legislative leaders.”
No citizens’ initiatives met the requirements to appear on the November 2022 ballot.
“Unfortunately, their plan has succeeded with spectacular success,” lawyers for the plaintiffs wrote in Monday’s 34-page brief.
The plaintiffs also took issue with part of the 2019 law requiring petition gatherers to provide their names, permanent addresses, temporary addresses and dates of birth before they can circulate petitions.
The law also imposes fines on workers who fail to submit petitions within 30 days after they were signed.
“Plaintiffs are currently injured in their ability to freely circulate initiative petitions in Florida to qualify for the 2024 general election ballot by the challenged statutes which reduce the pool of available petition circulators; make their petition drives more expensive, more time consuming, less likely to succeed in securing ballot access and reduce the total quantum of speech available for plaintiffs’ petition drives,” lawyers for the plaintiffs argued in the response Monday.
The brief also argued that “a large number of the best professional petition circulators,” refuse to work in Florida and other areas that ban payment based on the number of valid signatures they collect “because they can earn more income in jurisdiction which do not impose such bans.”
The inability to pay by the signature also hampers sponsors of proposed initiatives from estimating the costs of successfully placing proposals on the ballot, according to the plaintiffs.
The compensation ban “introduces extreme uncertainty as to the total cost to collect the number of signatures required to secure ballot access,” Monday’s brief said.
“Star Wars’ Yoda’s famous command ‘Do or Do Not —- There is No Try’ is particularly applicable to the decision an initiative sponsor must make to determine whether or not to pull the trigger to launch a petition drive,” lawyers for the plaintiffs wrote. “The decision to spend millions of dollars to seek ballot access can only be made when the sponsor reasonably believes that he has both the circulators and budget to secure the over 800,000 signatures to secure ballot access —- getting close to ballot access is a meaningless and devastating result.”
Republican legislators over the years have approved a series of measures designed to make it harder for groups to change the state Constitution through the initiative process. Former Rep. James Grant, a Tampa Republican who was a key player in the passage of the 2019 law, said at the time his goal was to “protect the sovereignty of the Florida Constitution.”