Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Florida Elections Officials Puzzled by 11th Hour Petition Changes in House Bill 5

TALLAHASSEE –  As the Florida State Legislature adjourned Saturday, Gov. Ron DeSantis chided House Speaker Jose Oliva that he would soon issue the first vetoes of his gubernatorial career.

Oliva and Republican leaders shrugged it off as a jest following a 61-day legislative session that ended in a week-long flurry of floor debates, bill adoptions and Saturday’s approval of a $91.1 billion budget that gave the first-year governor virtually everything he asked for.

But if there is a “veto watch” – DeSantis must sign or veto legislation within 10 days after transmittal or it becomes law without his signature – among the candidates could be House Bill 5, which is drawing heat for the way it was adopted and from county elections officials for presenting them a bureaucratic “nightmare.”

On the session’s last evening, Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, grafted a raft of amendments seeking to change the state’s petition-gathering process onto HB 5, which would require local sales tax referendums to be held during general elections and tighten rules on paid non-state resident signature-gatherers.

Grant’s 11th-hour amendments sought to require every county elections office, along with the state’s Division of Elections (DOE), to provide unique, numbered forms for every active petition.

Right now, county and state elections offices play no role in the petition process until forms with signatures are submitted to be verified.

Republicans in the state Legislature have not been coy about their dislike for recent constitutional amendments passed by voters following well-organized and financed petition drives.

Among them, last November’s adoption of Amendment 4, which restored voting rights for most felons upon completing sentences, and the 2016 amendment that legalized medical marijuana.

Grant said the measure was a necessary safeguard to protect the state constitution from well-organized and financed petition drives by “third-party” out-of-staters, at one point stating, “A direct democracy is for other places – not namely the United States or the state of Florida."

Republicans said the amendments would prevent fraud and keep out-of-state “third-party” interests from meddling with the Florida constitution.

HB 5

HB 5 passed the House 67-43 before being transmitted in the waning hour of the session to the Senate, where Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Spring Hill, spearheaded its quick adoption in a 22-17 vote.

The newly adopted provision essentially extends the state’s voter registration system to petition-gathering, requiring every citizen initiative organization sponsoring a signature-drive to have its own numbered, serialized petition provided by county elections offices and the DOE.

Grant said on the House floor Friday night that serialization will track specific petition forms to specific gatherers, affording greater accountability. If a specific group collected 100 numbered petition forms from elections officials and half were later disqualified for invalid signatures, the state could better identify “bad actors.”

But the change creates a new duty for already burdened elections officials, said Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections (FSASE) President Paul Lux, who called it “a world of headaches.”

According to state election regulations, every organization – say a county GOP or Democratic Party offering voter registration materials to people at a county fair – gets the same voter registration forms from the county’s Supervisor of Elections office or the DOE.

Voter registration forms are numbered and serialized to ensure that the county GOP or Democratic Party committee collecting voter registration forms at a county fair returns them all, not just those of registrants to their party.

FSASE and local government officials are also wondering who will pay for administering the new requirement, noting that handling the new petition-processing system will require more manpower.

To get on the 2020 ballot, petition-gatherers say they’ll need to collect at least 1.1 million signatures to ensure the necessary 766,320 are verified as valid.

With supporters of more than a dozen potential 2020 measures engaged in petition drives, FSASE and local government officials say this will require local elections offices to provide many million petitions on demand, even if the law allows petitions made from digital copies.

Republicans hailed the amendments in HB 5 as a victory salvaged from a session where bills that would have asked voters to repeal the Constitution Revision Commission and raise the threshold to pass a constitutional amendment from 60 percent to two-thirds got lost in the late shuffle.

Democrats said the bill reflects Republicans overall strategy to chip away at voter access and the petition process.

“Democracy died a little this session,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. “We made a decision to restrict the constitutional amendment process, which is a direct attack on democracy.”

This piece appeared in the Watchdog.org and was reprinted by the Columbia County Observer with permission or license.

Layout and graphic added by the Observer; composite image produced by the Observer

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