The Florida Supreme Court came to the rescue of the state's voter initiative process, protecting it from undue legislative meddling in a welcome ruling Wednesday. With a full written decision to come, the justices issued a brief 4-2 ruling to strike down a law that had let voters revoke their signatures on initiative petitions to put constitutional amendments on statewide ballots.
While allowing petition signers to reconsider may sound benign, the law was specifically passed to give big business interests the ability to harangue voters into retracting their signatures on the controversial Hometown Democracy initiative. Regardless of the merits of this particular amendment, which would require voter approval of changes to county land use plans, the court appropriately put an end to such games.
The signature revocation law gummed up the petition-gathering process in a way that unduly infringed on the people's right to amend the state Constitution. A person's signature on a petition does not indicate support for the underlying measure, simply that he or she agrees that it should get on the ballot. Voters must still pass any amendment by a 60 percent majority for it to succeed. Any battle on the merits can wait for the actual election.
The new law came about as the founders of Florida Hometown Democracy were gathering signatures to put the issue before voters in 2008, an effort that ultimately failed. Spooked, Florida's Republican-controlled Legislature passed a law allowing voters to rescind their signatures within 150 days of signing. An organization backed by Associated Industries of Florida then successfully persuaded 13,000 Hometown Democracy signers to retract their signatures.
How many of those voters were intimidated into retracting? Alarmist letters were sent to petition signers to get them to rescind their signatures. An official-looking letter from "The Honorable John Thrasher," former speaker of the Florida House, did not indicate that he was a lobbyist for Associated Industries.
As it turns out, regardless of whether those 13,000 signatures were legally revoked, Florida Hometown Democracy says it has enough signatures for ballot placement in 2010. The Department of State unofficially has the amendment with 711,168 signatures, and 676,811 signatures are required for ballot certification. Older signatures will start expiring on Monday, four years after collection.
In striking down the law, the high court made the right call. The Legislature has the authority to pass laws to promote the integrity of the ballot in the initiative process, such as ensuring valid signature verification procedures. Lawmakers cannot constitutionally use their authority to add unreasonable burdens to the process, and they should not have intervened to tilt the process in favor of the powerful special interests that help fuel their political campaigns.