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‘The damage is done’: Florida officials vow to fix problems with crackdown on petition gatherers

Two months after a crack down on constitutional amendments took effect, Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee has agreed to host a workshop Friday to work out the problems that have become a budget drain on both petition backers and taxpayers.
John Loudon speaks in Miami on July 17, 2019, to deliver the final signatures for Florida Citizen Voters, which announced it has collected 1.5 million signatures. With him is Gabriel Alfonzo, a naturalized citizen from Venezuela, and Jose Montas, a naturalized citizen from Dominican Republic. [JOHN LOUDON | Florida Citizen Voters] [Florida Citizen Voters]
Published Aug. 30
Updated Aug. 30

An 11th-hour attempt by the Florida Legislature to restructure the way paid petition gatherers get signatures to amend the state Constitution has led to a summer of quick-turn rule changes, website crashes, overtime expenses and unanswered questions.

Two months after the law took effect, Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee held a workshop Friday to work out the problems that have become a budget drain on both petition backers and taxpayers.

“The damage is already done,” said Gail Schwartz, chair of the initiative to ban assault weapons in Florida. She said her organization was faced with “tens of thousands of dollars” in additional cost when the new rule changed the format of the petitions and she was forced to reprint thousands of copies.

Friday’s workshop by the secretary of state is the first attempt at answering questions as the agency is only now starting to write rules to fully implement the law.

RELATED STORY: Ron DeSantis signs crack down on constitutional amendments, solidifying Republican control in Florida

Schwartz said that while she welcomes the clarification expected from the workshop, her organization doesn’t “have the luxury of pausing our efforts and waiting for them to clarify. Time is of the essence.”

A bill, HB 5, aimed at changing the petition-gathering process was passed through the Legislature in the final hours of the 2019 legislative session. Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, who sponsored the measure, said his goal was to “protect the integrity of the fundamental governing document” and to make the opaque process more transparent.

But, he now says, the legislation “probably didn’t go far enough” and there is still work to do to refine petition gathering. He makes no apologies for having the changes take effect before problems were sorted out.

The hastily implemented law has been rife with unintended consequences — from costing taxpayer money for paying elections workers overtime, to confusion among professional signature gatherers, to the disclosure of hundreds of home addresses of petition gatherers.

Some users report consistent crashes and glitches that don’t allow them to log in to the online program and download petitions. Even those who can log in sometimes have access to download other petitions, but not the one they had signed up to carry.

Patti Brigham, president of the state’s League of Women Voters chapter, says the state is acting irresponsibly.

“If it’s creating so much confusion, it certainly has slowed down the process,” said Brigham, whose organization works closely with the Ban Assault Weapons Now! initiative. “Time is of the essence and they put this off until August 30.”

A CHANGE IN PAY

The law, which went into effect July 7, changed the petition-gathering process by attempting to discourage pay-per-signature campaigns and imposing more oversight and accountability over their organizations.

The new law requires that ballot initiatives pay petitioners by wage or hour, not by signatures gathered. It also requires that gatherers — who must be registered as an in-state petition circulator with the Secretary of State — turn in petitions to supervisors of elections within 30 days of being signed.

The bill originally died in the Senate but, in a move characteristic of most legislative sessions, the language was tacked onto a different, unrelated bill in a last-ditch effort to pass the proposal.

Because the new rules went into effect immediately upon the bill signing, instead of after a rule-making process, state and county election officials are rushing to catch up.

The Secretary of State’s office also alarmed many people when it imposed new requirements that were never mandated by the bill. For example, personal information from signature gatherers who registered under the new law was posted publicly online, including home addresses. After petitioners complained, the state took the private data off its website but only after the information was allegedly used to stir up disputes between competing organizers.

One petitioner filed a restraining order after a tussle with Mark Jacoby, president of a signature-gathering firm, led to threatening texts and alleged assaults by people who worked for him.

Helena Thesing, who has been working as a petition gatherer for the last 12 years, was spooked by the fact her address was posted online. She said this year has been the roughest she’s seen.

“I doubt I’ll continue in it. I’d say I’m pretty much done,” she said. “There’s some nights I don’t sleep.”

John Morgan, the Orlando lawyer who has financed the petition drive to raise Florida’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, said the time-consuming nature of the new law has required him to pay more to the company he has hired to gather petitions.

“I’m having problems but the only problem I’m having money will solve,’’ he said. “It’s going to cost me more money, but I was more than halfway across the lake. ... I believe I have all my signatures right now.”

Although the new law was meant to target paid petition campaigns, it has also left volunteer petitioners with questions.

Schwartz, chair of the initiative to ban assault weapons in Florida, said that the easiest way to collect more petitions in less time is to pay a firm, but without backing from corporate sponsors or special interest groups, the new law has made it nearly impossible. Because the new law requires professional petition companies to pay hourly instead of per signature, her group can only afford to rely on volunteers.

She says it’s on purpose, and that any clarification or assistance from the state is too late.

Michael Minardi, who is spearheading an effort to legalize recreational marijuana, faced similar delays when it came to volunteer petitions. Even a meeting with the Secretary of State’s general counsel didn’t help clear up the confusion.

“Our Constitution states that the power is granted by the people. They’re doing everything they can to prevent that,” he said. “This new system has slowed everything down.”

SUPERVISORS ARE SWAMPED

The new law has taken a toll on election supervisors, too. The Times/Herald reported in July that after the new law passed hundreds of thousands of petitions flooded election offices, whose employees were tasked with verifying signatures within the new 30-day deadline.

“There’s a lot of ambiguity,’’ said Paul Lux, supervisor of elections for Okaloosa County. “We’re trying to get answers, too, while we’re under the gun.”

Bill Cowles, the Orange County supervisor of elections, said it cost his office an extra $120,000 to bring in 14 temporary employees and pay full-time staff overtime.

In Osceola County, which has a population of around 350,000, Elections Supervisor Mary Jane Arrington said the county’s modest staff of 16 was forced to work long hours and weekends to verify the signature of each registered voter in the time allotted.

Christina White, the Miami-Dade County supervisor of elections, said her staff hired 40 temporary employees at one point to deal with an influx of petitions (88,000 of which came in a truckload last month) and a 30-day deadline to verify them. Her office is used to batches of no more than 16,000 petitions at a time.

Some new software has helped, but it was only provided to her office earlier this week.

“What I think would be a better approach would have the effective dates further out,” she said. “It was very challenging at the start of this.”

Grant said his goal of barring out-of-state big money was thwarted when the requirement that petitioners be Florida residents didn’t make it into the final version of the legislation. Instead, dark, untraceable money is funding two of the petition efforts and petition-gathering firms are being hired from all across the country.

He wanted transparency of information, but instead ended up with a public list of petitioners’ home addresses, which was eventually taken down. Grant is “anti-registry” at heart, and said he hopes to tackle “doxxing,” or publishing private information about people on the internet, next legislative session.

“Fast change is going to have unintended consequences,” Grant said. “I am all ears for suggestions because I do expect to propose another [bill] this year.”

He said, however, that the people frustrated with the restrictions are “complaining to the wrong audience.”

The changes shouldn’t have come as a surprise to petition drive leaders, Grant said, because he had filed the bill months ago.

“It’s the old adage: ‘You ask how long is it going to take, and someone looks at you and says, ‘How long do have?’ ” he said.

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