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Judge blocks Florida lawmakers’ attempt to limit contributions in ballot drives

The Florida Legislature placed a $3,000 limit on contributions from out-of-state donors.
The Florida Capitol Complex on Tuesday, March 29, 2022, in Tallahassee.
The Florida Capitol Complex on Tuesday, March 29, 2022, in Tallahassee. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]
Published Jun. 16

TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge has rejected an attempt by Florida lawmakers to limit contributions to political committees supporting ballot initiatives, saying it violates the First Amendment.

U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor issued an 18-page ruling Wednesday that included a permanent injunction against the $3,000 contribution limit, which passed in 2021 and was revised this year. The limit was part of long-running efforts by Republican leaders to make it harder to pass ballot initiatives to amend the state Constitution.

Winsor also disputed arguments by attorneys for the Florida Elections Commission, the defendant in the lawsuit, that the contribution limit would help curb fraud in the crucial process of collecting petition signatures to put initiatives on the ballot.

“Here, there is no decent fit between the restriction and the asserted anti-fraud purpose,” wrote Winsor, who was appointed to the federal bench by former Republican President Donald Trump. “For one, the FEC (Florida Elections Commission) shows no clear connection between large individual contributions and fraud. In the FEC’s view, the fraud illustrates how Florida’s ballot initiative process is susceptible to the influence of large donors who fund petition gatherers, who in turn have incentives to falsify petition signatures. But the FEC offers no reason to think that large individual contributions — as opposed to large aggregate contributions — are to blame for this dynamic.”

The 2021 law placed a $3,000 limit on contributions from in-state and out-of-state donors to political committees gathering petition signatures. Winsor last year issued a preliminary injunction to block the law, saying it violated First Amendment rights to political expression.

The Legislature this year revised the law to apply the $3,000 limit only to out-of-state donors. The state’s attorneys argued that the change made the lawsuit moot.

Related: Florida lawmakers look to limit out-of-state donors on citizens initiatives drives

Winsor acknowledged in Wednesday’s ruling that the revision was a “complicating factor.” Nevertheless, he ruled the limit unconstitutional.

“If anything, the amendment (this year’s revision) undermines the asserted interest in preventing fraud,” Winsor wrote. “The FEC has argued that (the law limiting contributions) is important to curb the incentives that ‘big money’ has in facilitating fraud. But the amendment will allow unlimited contributions to political committees that support ballot initiatives, so long as the money comes from Floridians. This will only undermine any suggestion that there is an adequate ‘fit’ between the law and the asserted interest.”

The judge added, “In short, the parties have not shown that the new law will change anything, so it provides no basis to deny the requested relief. This order will enjoin the FEC from enforcing the contribution limit against plaintiffs as to donations to political committees that sponsor a ballot initiative.”

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and political committees filed the lawsuit, arguing that the contribution limit unconstitutionally restricted speech and was designed to prevent citizens’ initiatives from reaching the ballot.

Committees typically have to raise and spend millions of dollars to collect enough petition signatures to take issues to voters. To get on the 2024 ballot, for example, committees would need to submit 891,589 valid signatures.

The law would have applied only to contributions made during the petition-gathering process — not to contributions made after initiatives qualify for the ballot.

Voters during the past two decades have used the initiative process to make a series of high-profile changes, such as legalizing medical marijuana and increasing the minimum wage.

But Republican lawmakers have taken a series of steps to clamp down on the initiative process, arguing that many of the issues should be decided by the Legislature, rather than by amending the Constitution.

GOP lawmakers have frequently railed against large donors funding initiative drives. But supporters of initiatives argue that the Legislature often ignores the will of voters and that ballot initiatives are the only route to pass certain issues.

By Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida

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