'Crisis point’: Florida election website for petition gatherers is broken, state acknowledges

After months of glitches, the Department of State is resorting to a paper workaround while ballot initiatives face higher costs.
Parents of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a shooter killed 17 people in 2018, push petitions for 2020 ban on assault weapons in Florida. (Miami Herald)
Parents of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a shooter killed 17 people in 2018, push petitions for 2020 ban on assault weapons in Florida. (Miami Herald) [ MIAMI HERALD ]
Published Oct. 21, 2019|Updated Oct. 22, 2019

The Florida Legislature’s hasty overhaul of statewide ballot referendums brought more problems Monday as a top state official acknowledged its website for petition gatherers is broken with no immediate fix in sight.

In a statement, Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee said “we do not have any reason to believe” that the glitches were the work of an external actor, like someone hacking the website or the result of a denial of service attack. Rather, she faulted the “short timeline” to build the system after lawmakers voted at the 11th hour to significantly alter how signatures are collected in Florida.

In the meantime, the Department of State is offering an off-line paper workaround as it tries to debug the website.

“The petition process is important, and we are doing everything in our means to ensure the process continues as smoothly as possible," Lee said.

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

The site is supposed to be used by organizations to register people who collect signatures for ballot initiatives to amend the state constitution, like the current efforts to ban assault weapons and raise the minimum wage. However, the website has created headaches since it debuted in July and in recent weeks it has worked sporadically, if at all.

Those problems reached a “crisis point” in the past week, said Alex Patton, a political consultant for Citizens for Energy Choice, the organization fighting to deregulate the power grid. Worse, Patton said, he couldn’t get an explanation from the Department of State and was repeatedly told the site was just slow. On Monday, a lawyer for Citizens for Energy Choice sent the state a letter demanding answers and an immediate fix.

By the evening, Patton had received an email from the state outlining its alternative option. The note said the website is “undergoing maintenance.” Patton is skeptical of the state’s workaround.

“I am now paying 25 people by the hour to sit and twiddle their thumbs (because) they can’t register to work,” Patton said earlier in the day. “It’s gross incompetence or it’s deliberate.”

The website was created in response to a bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to restructure the petition gathering process. The new law bans organizers from paying petitioners by the signature, a common practice. Instead, they must be paid a wage or by the hour. It also requires that gatherers be registered with the Secretary of State.

The rollout of the state’s response to the new law, which went into effect July 7, was rife with problems from the start. It has cost taxpayers more money in overtime as Lee’s office has scrambled to comply with the law and the additional red tape has confused ballot initiative leaders. At one point, the state accidentally disclosed the addresses of hundreds of petition gatherers.

The changes came in response to the 2018 election, which saw 12 successful ballot measures to change the constitution, including the amendment to restore voting rights to felons and another to ban greyhound racing. Lawmakers, backed by DeSantis, said it shouldn’t be so easy to change the state’s premiere governing document (though many of those referendums were added by the state’s constitutional review commission, not political campaigns).

The additional hurdles have injected uncertainty and additional expenses to the already hectic effort to gather 766,200 signatures before Feb. 1.

“It was poorly executed and very clunky and didn’t work well," said Steve Vancore with All Voters Vote, the ballot initiative to open Florida’s primaries. “It cost more money, and it slowed us down.”