ACLU challenges measure to limit donations to ballot initiatives
To change Florida's Constitution, the voters must have their say. but first, amendments must be in order.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law Friday.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida filed a lawsuit Saturday to block a bill signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis Friday that would implement contribution limits on citizen-led ballot initiatives. 

The lawsuit challenges SB 1890, which would impose a $3,000 limit on contributions to political committees backing proposed constitutional amendments during the signature-gathering process. That’s the same restriction placed on donations to statewide candidates.

But, the ACLU claims in its lawsuit that limiting contributions to state ballot initiatives unconstitutionally burdens and chills Florida citizens’ free speech and association, as protected by the First Amendment. 

“Over the last several years, the Florida Legislature has passed dozens of bills to undermine the citizen initiative process,” Nicholas Warren, staff attorney at the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement. “Florida citizens’ right to participate directly in our democracy is protected by the Constitution, and yet, the Legislature and governor have made it their mission to make it even more difficult for Floridians to enact change. This latest attempt is a clear and obvious violation of Floridians’ free speech rights.”

However, Estero Republican Sen. Ray Rodrigues, who filed the bill, has said wealthy donors contributing to campaigns to amend the Florida Constitution is a new phenomenon. Palatka Republican Rep. Bobby Payne, who sponsored the House version (HB 699), shared those sentiments.

“Let me remind you that this bill was trying to stop millionaires, which we’ve seen, 25 millionaires, billionaires contribute over $70 million to out-of-state elections in the last four years, 12 of which have been in Florida,” Payne told House members ahead of the 75-40 vote in that chamber last week.

The state has a history with citizen-led ballot proposals, making this just the latest effort to slow the evolution of the Florida Constitution.

In recent years, lawmakers have imposed restrictions limiting paid signature gatherings and shortening the time for gathering signatures. Democrats contend the costs for campaigns to get initiatives on the ballot have increased because of recent legislation.

The state requires a petition with a number of signatures equal to 8% of the votes cast in the preceding presidential election in order for the proposal to be recognized.

Florida also has a signature distribution requirement, which requires that signatures equaling at least 8% of the district-wide vote in the last presidential election be collected from at least half, or 14, of the state’s 27 congressional districts.

Decades ago, Florida had a contribution cap for all political committees, and the U.S. Court of Appeals and Supreme Court struck down that limit as violating the First Amendment, which protects our freedom to express views on political matters, including to advance ballot measures.

Citizen-led initiatives, a method that was first adopted in 1968, are one of five ways constitutional amendments can be placed on the ballot in Florida. Voters must approve citizen initiatives by a 60% vote for provisions to get amended to the constitution.

The new legislation could reduce the amount of resources available during the signature collection process. Opponents fear, and proponents hope, fewer initiatives will make it to the ballot stage.

With backers of proposed amendments required to submit 891,589 petition signatures to get measures on the 2022 ballot, paid petition-gathering drives likely would cost millions of dollars.

Already, the 2022 cycle might be seeing fewer initiatives than in recent years. Last month, the Florida Supreme Court blocked a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at legalizing recreational marijuana use, saying the proposed ballot wording would have been misleading.

Floridians have expressed overall disapproval for efforts to make it tougher to amend the state’s constitution.

In 2020, six amendments appeared on the ballot in Florida, four of which were citizen initiated measures — two passed, two failed.

One of the failed initiatives, the “Voter Approval of Constitutional Amendments” or Amendment 4, would have required all proposed amendments or revisions to the Florida Constitution to be approved by voters in two elections, instead of one, in order to take effect. Voters shot down the proposal in November.

The citizen-driven amendments that passed in 2020 included increasing the state minimum wage to $15 by 2026 and providing stricter wording for voting eligibility.

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.

Kelly Hayes

Kelly Hayes studied journalism and political science at the University of Florida. Kelly was born and raised in Tampa Bay. A recent graduate, she enjoys government and legal reporting. She has experience covering the Florida Legislature as well as local government, and is a proud Alligator alum. You can reach Kelly at [email protected].

One comment

  • PeterH

    May 9, 2021 at 10:18 am

    Money is people….. or that was the end result of Justice Robert’s poorly defined Citizens United! DahSantis bill will be overturned…… every citizen in every state gets to say what happens in Florida.

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