Florida lawmakers want to clamp down on citizen-driven initiatives to address the important issues that they won’t | Opinion

Parents of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a shooter killed 17 people in 2018, push petitions for 2020 ban on assault weapons in Florida.
Parents of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a shooter killed 17 people in 2018, push petitions for 2020 ban on assault weapons in Florida. Miami Herald

In the United States, power belongs to the people. We, the people, have the right to engage in the political process, and that right is especially important when our leaders fail to act on critical issues affecting our lives. When we speak up and take action, we see results. Now, special interests in Tallahassee are trying to strip away that right to assemble our collective power and limit access to our democracy to a select few.

This is not what democracy looks like.

For decades, Floridians have used the citizen-initiative process to bring questions to voters on issues significant to the states. It is already difficult to do, so it is a tool of last resort. Florida already has one of the most limited citizen-initiative processes in the country. Residents have to gather signatures equal to 8 percent of the votes cast in the preceding presidential election, which, in practice, means collecting more than 1 million since some won’t be fully validated. And because signatures expire after two years, sponsors have to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.

The decision to pursue a citizens initiative is not one that anyone makes lightly. But when the Legislature is unwilling or incapable of moving the ball forward on important policy questions, when it refuses to respond to the needs of Florida’s residents, many find that they have no choice. I know this from experience.

After several years of extreme budget cuts to some of our state’s most popular conservation programs — funding for Florida Forever, protecting state parks and wildlife areas, restoring springs and the iconic Everglades — members and supporters of conservation organizations were outraged. So, we took the issue directly to voters.

We sought to achieve the ambitious goal of passing the Water and Land Conservation Amendment. I started as the field director, and with a small team of organizers, we crisscrossed the state to mobilize more than 4,000 dedicated volunteers. I was lucky enough to meet hundreds of them.

Even with an army of incredible volunteers, we were only able to collect about one-third of the signatures needed. When our two-year deadline approached, it was these courageous volunteers who then built the foundation of our donor network and helped us pay professional signature gatherers to cross the finish line. It’s within the realm of possibility that we could have finished without professional help if we had 10 years, but two? It simply would not have been possible.

Now, Republican leaders in the Florida House and Senate are fighting hard to shut down citizen-initiative questions from being added to the ballot, infringing on our First Amendment rights.

They are not trying to keep the integrity of the voting process. They’re trying to dismantle it completely.

Overregulation of the citizen-participation process is a tool that those in power use to silence and delegitimize people and communities who challenge that power. You can help by contacting your elected officials. Tell them to oppose these attacks on our democracy and protect the people’s access to the ballot.

Citizen initiatives historically have bipartisan support because they reflect real issues and concerns from real people who share common interests — not the pockets of special interests. In a time where politics are so polarized, it’s more important than ever for Floridians, and Americans, to find common ground and unite.

Aliki Moncrief is the executive director of Florida Conservation Voters and FCV Education Fund, which focus on educating, electing and holding Florida’s elected officials accountable for their environmental actions.