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Democrats Look Across The Aisle For Help Stopping Citizen Initiative Change

Democrats and grassroots organizations stand in the Fourth Floor Rotunda of The Florida Capitol speaking against changes that make the citizen initiative process harder.
Blaise Gainey

It could soon become harder for regular people to amend the state’s constitution. Democratic Representatives are calling out their Republican colleagues for trying to make the citizen initiative process more difficult.

Rep. Fentrice Driskell (D-Tampa) says the Republican-backed bills could disrupt Florida’s Democracy.

“The voters right to participate directly in our Democracy is protected by Florida’s Constitution, however some of our colleagues are trying to push through House Bill 7037, House Joint Resolution 7093 and their companion bills in the Senate to make it even harder for ballot measures to succeed," Driskell said. "And their doing it as fast as possible with as little input as possible.” 

House Bill 7037 would make several changes to the signature gathering requirements, ballot language requirements for getting a citizen initiative on the ballot.

“These proposals will make it practically impossible for everyday citizens and grassroots movements to amend the constitution to make our lives better. Amendment 4 is a great example of the kind of popular grass root movement that these bills are trying to kill off," Driskell said.

Amendment 4 was on the ballot in 2018. It restored the right to vote for certain felons. It was put on the ballot by the Florida Restoration of Rights Coalition an organization run by formerly incarcerated citizens.

“That citizen initiative ended a 150-year-old law that permanently took away the right to vote from returning citizens. More than 5 million Floridians passed Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to more than a million Floridians," Driskell said.

If the bill passes it would lower the duration a signature on a petition would be valid, shortening the window for a petition gatherer to work. The number of signatures needed for a Supreme Court Review would increase. Jodie James is the Chair of Floridians for Freedom, a group that has attempted to put an amendment on a ballot allowing Adults the right to Cannabis.

“We go towards the Supreme Court review because we believe that our idea is sound. Right now the bills before us is going to move the goal post on a Supreme Court Review. And that means it’s going to be even harder and take even longer," James said. "This legislation restarts the clock every 24 months. Meaning if the infrastructure it’s not already in place, it won’t happen.”

James says her group would have to spend more money to gather signatures before knowing if the measure was legally correct. Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) says the change only helps people with access to money.

“Major corporations will still have the power much like the have the power in this building to control our lawmakers based on political contributions," Eskamani said. "There’s a clear align between the interest that don’t like the issues we’re talking about whether it’s water conservation, rights restoration, medical cannabis, $15 minimum wage there is major special interest who are opposed to these concepts that majority of Floridians want and vote for that we see come to this building where efforts are made to stifle them.”

The other House Bill, 7093 would require that signature thresholds be met in all 27 congressional districts to be placed on a ballot, they currently only need 14. Eskamani says she wants the bill to be called what it truly is.

“I’ve actually filed an amendment that would change today’s bill to be title Bad Initiative for Billionaires because that’s exactly what these efforts would do," Eskamani said.

Trish Neely, of the League of Women Voters of Florida, agrees.

“We are volunteers, we are grassroots, we have no deep pockets waiting in the wings. But let’s be clear the bills don’t restrict constitutional amendments by legislators. I heard one sponsor explain this bill will keep our constitution cleaner," Neely said. "Rather disingenuous I believe, since legislators file far more amendments than the people do,"

It wasn’t until 1968 when citizens got the right to amend the constitution. Since then, 39 citizen initiatives have made it to the ballot, only 8 didn’t pass. During that same time more than 80 were proposed by lawmakers.

“I feel as though I am doing battle with big government with fewer and fewer weapons at my disposal. These bills are terrible for democracy and disrespectful of the important roll Floridians play," Neely said.

House Sponsor and Tampa Republican James Grant balks at the criticism.

"Every time I present this initiative I invite everybody here. Nothing would make me happier than the end of my political career proving that a republic still exists," Grant said. "Everybody come knock on doors, everybody raise dollars, everybody show that this is a front to direct democracy as if a republic is not good enough and take me out."

Grant believes the legislation puts more pressure on the legislature to do what’s right.

“The fundamental question we have here is do we think that we as duly elected members should have more pressure on us to make decisions or less. And to turn into California and proposition our self til death turns us, what’s the point of the legislature are we going to spend our time implementing constitutional amendments or should we be responsive to our voters and should we understand that history lays the perfect predicate for the minority party to become the minority party," Grant said.

The Senate version of the bill to require signatures from all congressional districts has one more committee stop. The Senate’s changes to the signature gathering process is ready to be heard by the full chamber.

Blaise Gainey is a State Government Reporter for WFSU News. Blaise hails from Windermere, Florida. He graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He formerly worked for The Florida Channel, WTXL-TV, and before graduating interned with WFSU News. He is excited to return to the newsroom. In his spare time he enjoys watching sports, Netflix, outdoor activities and anything involving his daughter.