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Direct democracy in Florida is under attack at the Capitol

Commentary provided by LWVFL President Patricia Brigham | Orginally published by the Orlando Sentinel on February 16, 2020.

You may have noticed that the American process of democracy is under attack. Not just in Washington, D.C., but right here in the state of Florida. 

If you need proof, you need only to look at a recent story in the Tampa Bay Times about two powerful legislators who met privately and apparently decided they were not going to heed the strong advice of a federal judge to fix the “administrative nightmare” they caused last year in the implementation of Amendment 4 via Senate Bill 7066

Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Rep. James Grant of Tampa, both Republicans, instead decided to allow the issue to make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, a process that could take years. That means thousands of returning citizens would remain in limbo regarding their voting rights.

That is not what 65% of the electorate bargained for when they put Amendment 4 over the finish line in 2018, voting to restore the constitutional right to vote to those returning citizens.

As I was reading the story, Rep. Grant was making his case to further assault the process of direct democracy, defending House Bill 7037 before the House State Affairs Committee. That proposal would effectively gut Florida’s citizen-initiative process to amend the state Constitution.

It is already onerous to get a citizen initiative on the ballot. Nearly 750,000 petitions must be signed, millions of dollars raised to get them signed, deadlines to be met, including a review by the state Supreme Court. If approved by the court, the amendment must receive at least 60% of the vote for passage. But for some reason, Rep. Grant doesn’t seem to think that’s high enough of a standard. 

For example, his bill would increase from 10% to 50% the percentage of required signatures just to get an initiative reviewed by the court, while decreasing the time period to collect those signatures from two years to one. In the Senate, Travis Hutson of Palm Coast amended the companion bill, Senate Bill 1794, to decrease the 50% threshold to 33%.

Regardless, these new requirements would be like going from successfully jumping a hurdle on a racetrack to reaching the summit of Mount Everest. This is not a path for success; it is a trail littered with debris. 

It would be far less deceptive for the Legislature to just put an amendment on the ballot that does away with the citizen’s initiative process, which would likely please supporters of suppressing the vote. 

It’s likely already a done deal in Tallahassee. Rep. Dianne Hart of Tampa seemed to acknowledge that during the State Affairs hearing when she said she wasn’t going to weigh in on the closing debate because she basically knew the bill would pass anyway.

I’m glad she changed her mind as she pointed out: “This is not about being a Democrat or a Republican. This is about being fair to people. Why are we making it so difficult for folks to be able to participate in this democracy?”

That’s a good question. But one easily answered. One party rules Tallahassee. There is little bipartisanship and very few checks and balances. A very unhealthy situation for our democracy.

Rep. Grant insists that this proposal doesn’t take away the voice of the voters, it instead places more pressure on legislators to answer to their constituents. Let’s get real. This bill places undue and unnecessary burdens on the Supervisors of Elections, the Courts and of course, on the citizens of Florida. 

It’s goodbye to direct democracy, good for Grant and his cronies, but bad for Florida. 

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