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Leon County Judge Orders New Cost Estimate For Florida Elections Proposal

Florida's 2020 primary saw a record number of voters casting ballots by mail.
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Florida's 2020 primary saw a record number of voters casting ballots by mail.

Siding with supporters of a proposed constitutional amendment that would revamp Florida’s primary-election system, a Leon County circuit judge has ordered a state panel to revise an estimate that said the measure would cost millions of dollars for counties to carry out.

Judge Charles Dodson on Tuesday issued a ruling that said the estimate, which would be presented to voters in the Nov. 3 general election, is “not clear.” Lawyers for the state quickly filed a notice of appeal Wednesday at the 1st District Court of Appeal.

The proposed constitutional amendment, backed by the political committee All Voters Vote, would allow registered voters to cast ballots in primary elections regardless of party affiliation --- a major change from the state’s longstanding system of generally limiting primaries to voters registered with parties.

Under the proposal, which is opposed by the state Republican and Democratic parties, the two candidates getting the most votes in each primary would advance to the general election.

All Voters Vote filed a lawsuit in April challenging what is known as a “financial impact statement” that would provide information to voters about potential costs of the change.

State analysts estimated that counties would face $5.2 million to $5.8 million in costs because of the change during election cycles in even-numbered years, when races are held for such things as congressional and legislative seats. The estimated costs would be lower in odd-numbered years.

The analysts, who serve on the Financial Impact Estimating Conference panel, said the measure would have only “minimal” additional costs for the state.

All Voters Vote argued that the estimates of county costs were unclear and misleading, saying, in part, that many counties indicated the potential changes would not have any costs or that costs were unknown.

“Florida law abhors ballot language that is ambiguous and misleading,” lawyers for the committee wrote in an Aug. 3 court document. “The law has long required that ballot initiative language be clear and unambiguous so that voters can cast an informed vote on the measure presented. The law is no different for ballot language drafted by the state, such as the financial impact statement at issue here.”

Dodson agreed with the committee’s arguments and ordered the panel to submit a revised estimate to Secretary of State Laurel Lee by Aug. 28 so the state can send copies of the proposed amendment to county elections supervisors.

“The court finds that the portions of the financial impact statement relating to costs to the state being minimal, the lack of impact on state costs or revenues, the lack of impact on the state’s budget and the lack of statewide economic impact are clear and unambiguous,” Dodson wrote. “However, the remaining language dealing with potential local governmental costs is unclear and ambiguous.”

State lawyers said the notice of appeal automatically places a stay on Dodson’s decision until the case can be resolved by the 1st District Court of Appeal. As is common, the notice does not detail arguments that will be made at the Tallahassee-based appeals court. But in an Aug. 3 document, the state lawyers disputed that the estimate was unclear or misleading.

“The Financial Impact Statement clearly and unambiguously addresses each of the topics required by Florida law and accurately reflects the consensus conclusions reached by the FIEC (the Financial Impact Estimating Conference) following its review and analysis of these topics,” the lawyers wrote.