Senate tackles citizen initiatives

Sponsoring Senator Travis Hutson. Photo courtesy MyFloridaSenate

Senate Bill 1794 is making its way through the 2020 legislative session. Its aim is to place more restrictions on citizen initiatives. After the successful passage of several controversial amendments to the state Constitution, legislators appear poised to make it more difficult to place initiatives on the ballot.

Republican Senator Travis Hutson is the sponsor of SB 1794. According to the Ethics and Elections Committee it would require more surveillance of petition circulators. It also mandates that the Division of Elections and Supervisor of Elections offices charge the actual cost of verifying petitions rather than the current 10-cent/signature and provide petition forms electronically making petitioners responsible for the print costs.

Democratic Senator Oscar Braynon criticized the Senate’s Ethics and Elections Committee during their meeting last week. He said the Legislature clearly wants to get rid of this process.

“We deserve, at least to the people of Florida to say what we are trying to do. We don’t like the citizens’ initiative process,” he said. “And we don’t want it. It’s not that we want the constitution clean.”

This process allows citizens to introduce and vote on amendments without interference from the Legislature. These initiatives are responsible for restoring felons’ voter rights and legalize medicinal marijuana use.

According to the Florida Division of Elections, proposed amendments require 76,632 signatures to receive a judicial review. Once app

Legislators gather in the capitol. Photo courtesy New York Times

roved, 766,200 total signatures are needed over two years for an amendment to make it on the ballot. Citizen groups expressed concern that over the years the Legislature has made it more difficult for citizens to complete the initiative process by imposing various restrictions.

Aliki Moncrief, a representative from Florida Conservation Voters, said, “This is the final nail in the coffin.”

“Nobody in the grassroots citizens space approaches citizens initiatives lightly. It’s an extremely onerous thing to do,” she said. “I’m surprised to come back this year and find actually there’s one more nail to eliminate the little guy, the citizens groups, from being able to have access to their democracy.”

Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel called the bill responsible, saying the changes being made are in response to the growing use of the internet and emotional campaigning.

“Now that effort has been greatly reduced by the ability to rile people up, get them all upset through an internet process,” she said. “We discussed many of these things, we’ve debated them. We’ve gone through and they have not passed, so they come back around, and they decide to do it through a citizen initiative.”

This partisan effort is being presented in a two-pronged strike. Accompanying the bill is a ballot initiative, Voter Approval of Constitutional Amendments, which requires amendments and revisions to be approved in two elections rather than one.