State Politics

Changing Florida’s political system requires time, effort, money

Martin Munro of the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office verifies petitions in support of a 2016 ballot initiative to legalize medical use of marijuana.
Martin Munro of the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office verifies petitions in support of a 2016 ballot initiative to legalize medical use of marijuana. Tampa Bay Times

TALLAHASSEE People in Florida want real change in 2016, but that takes a lot of time, effort and money.

Especially money.

Across the state, activists are busy collecting voters’ signatures in an effort to get on the next general election ballot. Fed up with a Legislature that they say won’t hear their concerns, they are using a form of direct democracy known as the ballot initiative.

They’re trying to change the political system, one signature at a time. But it isn’t easy.

Their goals are as diverse as Florida itself: to legalize medical use of marijuana, promote solar energy, raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour, restore civil rights of ex-convicts, allow all voters to vote in party primaries and prevent future toll road hikes without a vote of the people.

If they gather enough signatures and overcome legal hurdles, their dreams will go before the voters in the 2016 presidential election. More than a dozen groups are trying to put measures on the ballot, but most will fall short.

Christopher Wills, 33, of Miami, is the leader of “DRIVE” (Drivers Ready To Improve, Vote and Empower), a group that wants to change the state Constitution to require that a county’s voters must approve toll increases on state roads.

“We’ve seen a great surge in support,” Wills said. “But it’s a daunting task to get this on the ballot, and the clock is ticking.”

To get on the ballot, Wills’ group and others must collect signatures from 683,149 Florida voters, or 8 percent of the votes cast in the 2012 presidential election, in 14 of Florida’s 27 congressional districts. Signatures must be validated by Feb. 1. To Wills, a toll is a hidden tax imposed by political appointees “with no real accountability” and no chance for voters to weigh in. “Tollmageddon” is a South Florida catch-phrase for steadily increasing tolls, including fees to use express lanes with limited traffic. The issue has struck a nerve with drivers, but Wills’ group has raised only $118.

Interest groups must pay county election supervisors 10 cents for each signature submitted, or at least $68,000, so Wills can’t file petitions until he raises enough money for them to be reviewed.

From Key West to Pensacola, county elections employees spend their days reviewing signed petitions to make sure they’re legal. A lot of them aren’t.

At Pinellas County’s elections center in Largo, petitions arrive daily in big cardboard boxes.

Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark assigns as many as five people a day to verify petitions at the rate of 400 to 600 a day per employee. As the weeks go by, holidays will intrude and more will arrive, and they must be reviewed within 30 days. Many people who gather signatures are from out of state. They are paid 50 or 75 cents for each signature.

Hunched over his computer, Pinellas elections staffer Martin Munro notices that one signer of a petition in support of medical marijuana is an inactive voter because mail sent to her home was returned as undeliverable and she did not vote in the past two general elections.

Munro discovers that a second petition is flawed because the signature doesn’t match the one on file. A third petition is tossed because the voter has already signed the same petition. “He’s not going to get credit the second time,” Munro says as he sets aside the duplicate.

Thousands more petitions are rejected for other reasons. Some petitions are sent to the wrong county. Some voters don’t list their correct date of birth.

“The voter has to do their part,” Munro said.

In Miami-Dade County, about 43,000 petitions in support of medical marijuana have been submitted, but 27,000 have been rejected as invalid. Nearly one-third of the rejected petitions were from voters in another county or the petition signer was not registered to vote.

In Pinellas County, one-third of 46,000 medical marijuana petitions filed were rejected. In Hillsborough, more than half of the first 25,000 petitions submitted were rejected.

“That’s actually pretty standard,” said Ben Pollara of United for Care, the group backing legalization of medical marijuana. “When we’re calculating what we need to collect, we generally assume around a quarter, or a third, are going to get knocked off for one reason or another.”

We’ve seen a great surge in support. But it’s a daunting task to get this on the ballot, and the clock is ticking.

Christopher Wills of Miami, leader of a group that wants voter approval of road toll increases

Ballot initiatives to legalize medical marijuana and loosen solar energy regulations appear most likely to get on the 2016 ballot. Both have more than 150,000 signatures and have plenty of money. Supporters of the medical marijuana amendment, which in 2014 fell short of the 60 percent support of voters required to pass, have raised $1.6 million this year, nearly all from Orlando trial attorney John Morgan.

Floridians for Solar Choice, the group backing the solar energy proposal, has raised $1.3 million, most of it from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. A competing amendment with a similar name, backed by utilities such as Duke Energy, Florida Power & Light, Tampa Electric and Gulf Power, raised $799,045 through Aug. 31.

A Clearwater-based group, Floridians for a Fair Democracy, wants voters to restore the civil rights of former convicts who have completed their prison sentence and probation. Under rules adopted by Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet in 2011, people must wait five years after leaving prison before they can ask the state for restoration of their rights, a process that can take years. The Voter Restoration Amendment faces another obvious hurdle. The people most likely to support it aren’t allowed to sign petitions because they have lost their right to vote.

So far, the group has 40,653 validated signatures, according to the state Division of Elections in Tallahassee. A leader of the effort, Desmond Meade, is a convicted felon who served time for cocaine possession and aggravated battery. He turned his life around, and got a law degree from Florida International University.

Blocking ex-convicts from voting is just not fair, he said. “It’s a travesty and it flies in the face of what democracy is all about,” Meade said. Day after day, he and his supporters gather petitions, but time and money are short. “This is turning out to be a true grassroots movement of American citizens,” said Meade, whose group has raised $1,570 so far. “But we do not have the luxury of having a benefactor — or a sugar daddy, as you might say — to bankroll this.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

5 steps to changing Florida’s Constitution

▪ A total of 683,149 voters must sign petitions.

▪ Petitions must include a valid number of signatures from 14 of the 27 congressional districts in Florida.

▪ The state Supreme Court must agree that the ballot language is limited to one subject and is not misleading.

▪ All petitions must be approved by election supervisors by Feb. 1, 2016.

▪ Sixty percent of voters must vote yes to amend the Constitution.

Source: Florida Division of Elections

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