Most states have some mechanism for “people made” law.
Referenda are popular in the West; these are pieces of law passed by the legislature that then must or can be passed on to the ballot for public approval or veto.
Some have initiatives; these are laws initiated by concerned citizens and organized groups to bypass the legislature and put policy directly before the voters.
Florida’s mechanism is somewhat different.
It is usually not statute that is jammed onto the ballot, but by an oddity of Florida’s law, they are often constitutional amendments. Typically, and in my admittedly cynical viewpoint, most of the things that appear on the ballot are things the Legislature fears to address: medical marijuana; felon rights’ reinstatement.
Since the Legislature often dithers around controversy, citizens act. They gather signatures on petitions; they organize ballot information sessions; they address the Rotary and the Kiwanis on the merits of their case. It’s good old “convince me” politics at its finest, and all of it takes place above and aside from the efforts of political parties.
Historically, there are few documents in politics that are thicker and contain more “people’s law” than the Florida state ballot.
In 2018, Florida originally had 13 amendments proposed, another way to put items into law, and five eventually made it to the ballot. By comparison, California’s ballot contained 11 “initiatives,” attempts to make law via the public vote.
There’s a catch, of course: for any of these in Florida to take effect as law, they have to receive at least 60 percent of the vote.
The medical marijuana amendment, which was proposed after an anemic effort on the part of the Legislature to address the issue, failed the first time. Although it garnered a majority (58 percent), it did not hit the high threshold and failed.
On a second try, it smashed through the barrier, winning 71 percent voter approval. The use of prescribed marijuana for a number of illnesses and conditions passed into law.
I would note that I was not particularly enthusiastic about the amendment myself, for a number of political-science-y reasons. But as our governor pointedly noted, the voice of the voters had been heard.
Also in 2018, voters approved an amendment restoring the civil rights (including voting) to former felons who had paid their debt to society; it passed at the comfortable margin of 65 percent.
The Legislature, having passed on the option (duty?) to address these two issues in session, now set out to undermine, sabotage and subvert the amendments.
In the case of medical marijuana, that meant fighting the right of patients to smoke the stuff. The governor called foul, asserting (correctly) that the will of the people of Florida was being thwarted. Cowed, the session has passed a bill more in line with the amendment.
But the most annoying alteration currently gaining ground is the worst case of “sour grapes” I’ve seen for some while.
Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lake, wants to change the rules. Under SJR 232, the already high hurdle of the super majority to pass one of these amendments would be raised to a super-super majority of 66 percent, or two-thirds of voters voting on an amendment.
Why? “I’ve been disappointed by some of the things that have happened,” he said.
In other words, he came up a whiny loser, and wants to be sure that even if his opinion is in a tiny minority, he can still block things he does not like.
In addition, the Constitutional Review Commission may also be headed for the electoral chopping block. Legislators are annoyed that the CRC has been placing things on the ballot that they believe is in their purview, so they are trying to shut that door as well (HJR 249).
And the CRC may be doing just that; but the reluctance of the Legislature to deal with issues that concern the average voter is why those amendments are out there — and often passing — to begin with.
The Legislature has many duties: working through budgets (kudos to Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and her crew for upping dollars for education, by the by), paving roads, being sure that we’re ready for a hurricane, oversight on charter schools, and even electoral regulation.
But the one thing the Legislature should not be able to do is to shut down the people of Florida when they decide they need to take a hand in their own governing — which they are currently able to do when the Legislature can’t, won’t, or doesn’t have the political will.
R. Bruce Anderson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Dr. Sarah D. and L. Kirk McKay Jr. Endowed Chair in American History, Government, and Civics at Florida Southern College in Lakeland.