Florida’s current Constitution contains much of the work of the five versions that preceded it, including an elected Cabinet system and a bicameral Legislature comprising a Senate and a House of Representatives.
The early constitutions, dated 1838, 1861, 1865, 1868 and 1885 reflected the times in which their drafters lived. By 1968, the state, emerging from its frontier beginnings, established its sixth and current Constitution, a reflection of the extraordinary modernization faced by the state in the mid-20th century.
This version copied most of the provisions of the 1838 Constitution, but in order for the state to formally secede from the United States, it tied Florida to the Confederate States of America. With the Civil War looming, its militia provisions took on new importance.
Adopted shortly after the Civil War, it never became law. Florida came under military rule before it could take effect. Although it acknowledged the abolition of slavery, it restricted jury service and even witness testimony to whites (unless the victim was black) and denied newly freed blacks and women the right to vote.
Often referred to as the “Carpetbag” Constitution, it reflected the turbulent times of post–Civil War Reconstruction and military occupation. It extended voting and other rights to all males and allocated seats in both the state Senate and House to the Seminole Indians. It also centralized authority in the governor, providing that all county officials be appointed by him, not elected locally. It required a system of public schools, a state prison and other institutions; required that taxes be uniform; and protected the homesteads of debtors from forced sales.
The framers were eager to impose checks on what they considered the abuses of Reconstruction governments. They were especially eager to weaken executive authority. They fragmented this authority by establishing an elected Cabinet and elected county officials, reducing elected state officials’ salaries and limiting the governor to one term. The new constitution authorized a poll tax, which remained until 1937, denying poor blacks and many poor whites the right to vote. This was the state’s longest-lived Constitution. It was amended 149 times, swelling it to more than 50,000 words by 1968, compared with the U.S. Constitution of 6,000 words.
The unwieldy Constitution of 1885 had grown hopelessly outdated. The writers of the new version saw a need for organized governmental change to keep up with a fast-moving Florida.
The population had exploded, from 267,500 in 1880 to 6.7 million by 1970. Motor vehicles swarmed across the state, a tourism industry had taken center stage, growth was rushing southward and the new Florida was feeling environmental impacts.
Anticipating ever more change, the drafters established a Constitution Revision Commission to review and draft amendments to the Constitution. This new body was tasked with submitting proposals to the state’s voters in 1978 and every 20 years thereafter. The provision sought to ensure that the state’s laws reflect its economic and social realities.
As the framework for all state laws, the state Constitution establishes rules and basic rights. To protect it from the whims of politics, it can’t be changed without a vote of the people. And with the amendments process, which provides five avenues through which to suggest to voters constitutional changes, the Constitution remains organic and responsive to a changing Florida. The Constitution consists of 12 articles, including a declaration of rights; suffrage and elections; judiciary; finance and taxation; education; and amendments.