Florida Democrat wants to pass 3 constitutional amendments making it easier to vote

The efforts will be pricey, and perhaps controversial in a state run by Republicans.
Sean Shaw, former state representative and Democratic candidate for attorney general. Times file photo.
Sean Shaw, former state representative and Democratic candidate for attorney general. Times file photo. [ MONICA HERNDON | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published June 2, 2021|Updated June 2, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Sean Shaw says it’s not easy enough to vote in Florida. He’s about to put lots of time, effort and money where his mouth is.

The former state representative and 2018 Democratic candidate for attorney general is embarking on a major effort to increase access to the ballot: He and his organization, People Over Profits, are hoping to get three separate state constitutional amendments passed in 2022. Shaw said in an interview last week that the efforts could cost as much as $20 million combined.

“This is a monumental effort, but democracy is worth it,” he said.

The three separate amendments backed by Shaw would:

  • Automatically register any Floridian who’s renewing or updating their driver’s license. Voters would have to opt out of registering to vote instead of opting in.
  • Allow Floridians to register to vote at polling places on Election Day or during early voting.
  • Undo a provision passed by the Republican-led Florida Legislature in 2019 that required ex-felons hoping to register to vote to first pay off outstanding court fines, fees and restitution.

Two of Shaw’s proposals are modeled after existing policies in other states. Rhode Island and California are among the states that automatically register voters during a department of motor vehicles transaction. Some 22 states offer some form of same-day voter registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Similar policies are also being championed at the federal level in a bill by Democrats to expand voting rights, although opponents argue automatic and same-day voter registration could affect election security.

Related: Fact-checking the hotly contested voting and elections bill in Congress

Shaw’s proposal to allow people with felonies to vote even if their court fines are not fully paid off, meanwhile, is potentially more controversial.

Floridians in 2018 approved a constitutional amendment that restored the right to vote to nearly all felons who completed “all terms” of their sentence. In 2019, the state Legislature passed a law saying that legal debts related to their sentences, including fines, fees and restitution, were part of the terms of their sentence. The law sparked lengthy court battles, with an appeals court eventually upholding the law.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who helped craft the 2019 law, said backers of 2018′s Amendment 4 had purposely not included language that exempted ex-felons from paying their fines and fees before registering to vote because it would have made it politically more difficult to pass the ballot initiative.

“They purposely chose not to use that language when they initially proposed Amendment 4,″ Brandes said of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which sponsored the amendment.

Amendment 4′s sponsors did have polling data showing their proposal would be more popular if it included ex-felons paying their debts, according to records that surfaced in the litigation surrounding the 2019 law.

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Desmond Meade, the president of the coalition, said he disagreed with Brandes’ assessment. Voters did not anticipate felons having to pay thousands of dollars in fees before they could regain the right to vote, he argued.

“This (ballot initiative) is an opportunity for Florida voters to actually weigh in and leave no doubt what their intentions were,” Meade said.

Shaw’s proposals to ease access to the ballot come amid continued false claims about widespread fraud in the 2020 election, which former President Donald Trump continues to falsely claim he won. While Trump’s Department of Homeland Security said the 2020 election was “the most secure in American history,” Republicans in dozens of states — including Florida — have proposed laws restricting efforts meant to make it easier to vote, such as vote by mail and ballot drop boxes. Florida’s election bill, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed last month, is being challenged in federal court by voting rights groups.

Related: Dozens of claims about election fraud, debunked: Politifact

Getting even one measure before voters is a time consuming and expensive process. Sponsors of a constitutional ballot initiative have to collect nearly 900,000 signatures, and they have to make sure their ballot language can pass legal muster. By law, initiatives must be limited to a single subject, and they can’t mislead voters.

The Florida Supreme Court has already shot down at least one high-profile ballot initiative that organizers hoped to get before voters in 2022: a provision that would have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

Related: Florida marijuana legalization dealt blow by Florida Supreme Court

Once an initiative is cleared for the ballot, it must get 60 percent support to be added to the state constitution.

It will be very difficult for any of Shaw’s proposals to garner the necessary momentum to appear on the 2022 ballot. But the organizer said he would keep the efforts alive into future political cycles, if necessary.

“We want it to be now, obviously, because every session, the Legislature appears to want to make it harder to get a ballot initiative on the ballot,” Shaw said.

The Legislature has indeed made it more difficult for organizations to start ballot initiatives in recent years. Most recently, lawmakers passed — and DeSantis signed into law — Senate Bill 1890, which limits individual contributions to ballot initiatives to $3,000. The limit only applies during the period of time before the initiative is cleared to appear on the ballot, but the new law is still a significant hurdle for those who want to get initiatives onto the ballot. Signature gathering is not cheap.

Shaw said he is confident his initiatives will succeed despite the new rules. But he also said he believes courts will strike down SB 1890.

“I think it’s pretty blatantly unconstitutional,” he said.

State records show that Shaw is already the chair of three separate political committees, which he’ll use to raise money for each individual initiative.