Two groups had a shot at getting on this November's ballot in Florida by using citizen petitions. One made it and one didn't.
The first group, Floridians4Marriage.org, got enough signatures verified by the Feb. 1 deadline. So we will vote on its measure against same-sex marriage.
The second group, Hometown Democracy, which sought voter control over growth, did not make it. Now that group must wait until the 2010 election.
Hometown Democracy, naturally, is not happy about this. The group says that it got enough signatures but the government didn't count them in time.
The reply of Hometown Democracy's opponents has been, more or less: "Boo hoo! You should turn them in earlier next time!"
But this is a legitimate question. There is a sort of "twilight zone" in our laws about petitions. The Legislature ought to fix it.
We have a single deadline for making the ballot, Feb. 1. That's the final day for signatures to be verified by county elections offices.
Unfortunately, there is no clear separate deadline for submitting petition signatures. As we saw this year, citizen groups can keep turning them in until the last minute.
Ordinarily, county elections offices have 30 days to verify signatures. But when petitions are turned in less than 30 days before the Feb. 1 deadline, there's no longer a guarantee they'll be counted.
You might think: "Well, tough noogies. If a group wants a guarantee, it should finish up 30 days early."
But that's not what our law says about when signatures must be submitted.
Besides, some counties this year counted all their signatures anyway, even those submitted within the last 30 days, yet others couldn't or didn't.
So whether one of your most fundamental rights counted — the right to petition the government — depended somewhat on the luck of the draw, and on how busy your elections office was.
This is not the way to do business in a democracy. It might even be unequal protection under the law.
There are three fixes.
First, we could just order the county elections offices to verify all the signatures by Feb. 1, no matter when they were submitted. But that is unreasonable.
Second, we could keep the Feb. 1 deadline for submitting signatures, and give the counties a later deadline, say March 1, for verifying them. This would take an amendment to our Constitution.
Third, we could create an earlier deadline for turning in signatures, say, Jan. 1 of an election year. We might be able to do that by a law, not constitutional amendment.
Make no mistake — an earlier deadline would further hurt citizens groups, who already have the deck stacked against them.
But the clarity might be worth it. What we have now is unfair. In fact, it gives the government the potential power to delay or even block the will of the voters altogether.
I know that citizen petitions are controversial in Florida and a lot of people don't like them. A lot of people think that Hometown Democracy itself is a bad idea.
But dislike for a particular petition, or even for petitions in general, does not justify vague or unfair rules. The right of the people to submit a petition to their government should never depend on whether the government gets around to reading it.