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Power to the people, right on, court says

Here is how it works in Florida:

If enough citizens sign a petition, they can put a proposed amendment to the state Constitution on the ballot.

The Constitution says so.

Here is the tricky part. The rules do not say that only "good" people get to petition, or only "smart" people, or only people that you or I like.

Nope. In fact, the chances are excellent that sooner or later, an idea that you personally cannot stand will reach the Florida ballot. It happens to me all the time.

When that happens, do you:

(1) Accept the fact that not everyone in a democracy agrees with you, and campaign to win the election?

Or do you:

(2) Keep trying to change the rules to make it harder for the people to get ideas on the ballot and passed at all?

This being Florida, we have opted for (2). And so in recent years our Legislature has adopted several ideas to crack down on petitions.

It now takes 60 percent of the vote for an amendment to pass. Used to be 50 percent.

The citizens now have to submit their signatures by Feb. 1 of an election year, and as we recently saw, even that is no guarantee that the government will count them.

We have a "price tag," so when amendments that cost anything are on the ballot, a government committee produces a ballot warning of how much it will cost.

Fair enough. In fact, the voters themselves approved all those ideas.

But one idea that the Legislature passed last year went too far — and on Wednesday, a state court struck it down.

The Legislature created a new process in which citizens could change their mind and revoke their signatures.

As predicted, that change in the law created a whole new cottage industry. Groups fighting petitions got a second bite at the apple — they could contact petition signers and try to scare or fool them into filling out a revocation form.

You might remember the funniest example, concerning the Hometown Democracy movement, which sought to limit growth. Its opponents sent out a letter warning voters that the amendment would give too much power to a suspicious, mysterious group known as "electors."

Of course, "electors" simply means "voters." It was a stupid trick to fool people.

The Hometown Democracy movement, which did not get enough signatures to make this year's ballot, sued to have the new law overturned. And on Wednesday, the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee agreed the law was unconstitutional.

The right of the people to petition is created in the Constitution. The court's ruling said, in essence, this means that the Legislature does not get to monkey around with it.

The Legislature is limited to making sure the process works correctly and the integrity of the ballot is ensured — verifying signatures and that sort of thing.

Maybe the Florida Supreme Court will end up hearing the case and deciding otherwise, but I think this was the right call. Otherwise the Legislature could keep right on inventing new obstacles.

Besides, if the Legislature thinks that having a revocation process is such a great idea, it can always do the same thing that the citizens can do:

Put it on the ballot as a proposed amendment, and let the voters themselves decide whether it's a good idea. As all them hippies used to say in the '60s: Power to the people, right on.

Power to the people, right on, court says 04/23/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 24, 2008 6:14pm]

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