State Backs Contribution Limit In Ballot Drives

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Tallahassee, FL - Florida officials this week disputed arguments that a new law limiting contributions to ballot-initiative efforts should be blocked because it violates First Amendment rights.

Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office, representing members of the Florida Elections Commission, urged a federal judge to reject a request by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and three political committees to issue a preliminary injunction against the law, which the Legislature passed in April.

The law (SB 1890) places a $3,000 limit on contributions to political committees collecting petition signatures to put proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot. The ACLU and the political committees contend that the cap violates First Amendment rights and would make it virtually impossible to collect the hundreds of thousands of required petition signatures.

But in a 14-page court document filed Tuesday, lawyers in Moody’s office described the contribution cap as “temporary” because it would only apply until initiative supporters have submitted enough petition signatures to reach the ballot. Contributions would not be capped during the final months of campaigns about ballot initiatives. 

The document also echoed arguments by Republican lawmakers that the cap is needed to ensure that amendment drives aren’t only funded by deep-pocketed special interests.

“Here, the challenged provision creates a temporary, targeted cap on contributions to ballot initiative committees during the signature-gathering process to ensure the integrity of the state's process for amending the Florida Constitution --- the charter of Florida's government,” the lawyers in Moody’s office wrote. “The cap allows potential signatories (i.e., registered voters), who might be asked to lend their signatures to an initiative petition during the interactive in-person signature-gathering phase, to have assurance that the funding for the initiative is provided by many donors at no more than $3,000 each and that the significant funding needed for a successful initiative petition has not been provided by a small handful, or even a single, very well-heeled special interest donor.”

But in a motion this month for the preliminary injunction, the ACLU and the political committees  known as Our Votes Matter, Florida Votes Matter and Fair Vote Florida challenged the contribution limit “as an undue burden on their speech and associational rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” The motion also quoted legal precedent that said the First Amendment protects “a marketplace for the clash of different views and conflicting ideas.”

“SB 1890 restricts that marketplace by limiting the resources initiative advocates can muster to promote their ideas, persuade voters to support their efforts and collectively impart ideas on matters of public concern,” the motion said. “The restriction cannot be justified by any significant state interest.”

Republican lawmakers passed the measure, which was signed last month by Gov. Ron DeSantis, as part of years of efforts to make it harder to amend the state Constitution. Those efforts have come as voters have passed initiatives on issues such as legalizing medical marijuana and raising the state’s minimum wage.

Supporters of the bill said, in part, that a contribution limit is needed to stop wealthy donors from bankrolling initiatives on policy issues that should not be in the state Constitution. They said such issues should be decided by the Legislature, not through constitutional amendments.

The three political committees that are part of the lawsuit are trying to place constitutional amendments on the November 2022 ballot that would register people to vote when they get driver’s licenses; allow people to register and vote at the same time; and prevent “legal financial obligations” from being a factor in restoring voting eligibility. The “legal financial obligations” proposal is an outgrowth of a 2018 constitutional amendment aimed at restoring voting rights of felons who have completed their sentences.

To reach the 2022 ballot, supporters would have to submit 891,589 valid petition signatures for each proposal by Feb. 1. The motion for a preliminary injunction said the committees would need to spend more than $9 million each to collect and submit petition signatures by the deadline.

Moody’s office, however, argued that the contribution limit does not cause “irreparable injury” to the committees and the ACLU.

“The cap may affect the timing of a campaign conducted in 2021, but plaintiffs provide no support for the assertion that the very existence of the contribution cap eliminates the possibility of a successful petition initiative campaign,” the document filed Tuesday said. “The cap does not eliminate the right to seek to amend the Constitution, it does not cap overall contributions to the sponsoring committees, and it does not create any time limitations for the initiative process. In other words, plaintiffs have not established that it is the cap on contributions that will prevent them altogether from successfully achieving ballot placement for their initiatives in a future general election ballot. They have therefore not shown the irreparable injury necessary for preliminary relief.”

The case, which has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, names members of the elections commission and Secretary of State Laurel Lee as defendants. Lee’s attorneys filed documents Tuesday that said she should be dismissed from the case, in part because she does not have a role in enforcing the contribution limit.

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