TALLAHASSEE — Millions of Florida voters will soon face their longest ballot ever, and history shows that some will raise the white flag and stop voting at some point — a decision, or non-decision, that could skew results of crucial down-ballot contests.
Ballot drop-off, or undervoting, is nothing new, and can be relatively harmless in nonpartisan races between two candidates where little is known about either person running.
But this year, voters who throw up their hands and say no more could indirectly help decide 11 state constitutional questions and local charter amendments that can write Florida's future.
Here's why: The law requires that 60 percent of voters must vote yes for a proposed constitutional amendment to pass. That's 60 percent of the voters voting on a question, not 60 percent of the total voters who show up.
So every time a voter skips a ballot question, it shrinks the pool of voters who will decide the result. That could make it easier for one side or another to prevail.
Voters may overwhelmingly support an additional property tax exemption for certain low-income seniors. But they may never make it all the way to Amendment 11 on the ballot.
Conversely, supporters of Amendment 6 — an amendment related to abortion — might motivate their base to vote 'Yes,' while those who might vote 'No' fail to chose either side.
"Not voting is not a 'No' vote and it's not a 'Yes' vote, either," said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. "And it puts greater power in the hands of fewer voters."
Groups working for passage or defeat of amendments use social networking sites to urge people to vote every question, so that undervotes don't make it easier for the other side to prevail.
Progress Florida, which opposes Amendment 6, restricting funding of abortions, is using Facebook and other sites that show a woman dancing the limbo alongside the slogan, "How low will you vote? Be sure to vote all the way down your ballot."
"We're going to have people running over on their lunch hour to vote, and they're going to be handed this tome," said Progress Florida political director Damien Filer. "I would hope that everyone would vote and vote all the way down the ballot."
County election supervisors anticipate the drop-off could be greatest at the end of a ballot that's 10 pages long in Miami-Dade, the state's largest county and one of only two (Broward also) where ballots must be printed in three languages.
"It's called voter fatigue," said Deborah Clark, supervisor of elections in Pinellas County.
She said it's all the more reason why voters should request mail ballots, so they can take the time at home to make their choices.
Topping the Florida ballot is the race for president, followed by contests for U.S. Senate, Congress, the Legislature, county and city offices, merit retention votes for three state Supreme Court justices and various court of appeal judges, and races for local fire, water and soil districts.
What follows are the 11 proposed amendments, which deal with capping state revenue growth, lowering property taxes, allowing state aid to religious schools and many other subjects.
All were sponsored by the state Legislature, which has exempted itself from a 75-word limit that applies to interest groups seeking ballot access. Some are hundreds of words long.
There's more: After the state amendments come local ballot questions, county and city referendums and charter amendments.
Voters in the Pinellas town of Redington Shores may have the longest civics test in the state, with 16 local charter questions.
In the 2008 general election in Florida, the combined vote total for all presidential candidates was 8,390,744.
But the vote total for the last proposed statewide constitutional amendment, which dealt with community college funding, was 7,372,212 — a drop-off of more than 1 million ballots cast by the same pool of voters.
The amendment failed, and some say it's bound to happen again because of the sheer length of the ballot.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who voted to put 11 questions on the ballot, now concedes that all may fail, due to a lack of understanding by voters.
"The drop-off effect starts with the judges, and many of them will vote no if they don't understand," Fasano said.
He predicted that most of the proposed amendments, wordy with legalese, are doomed to fail.
"In pure disgust, the people might just say, how dare they put 11 questions on the ballot?" Fasano said.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.
Correction: Two Florida counties print ballots in three languages, Miami-Dade and Broward. An earlier version gave only one county.