Florida Republicans' Recipe for Passing Controversial Ballot Measures: Just Add More

What do offshore drilling and vaping have to do with each other? Nothing, except that they appear together on one ballot question in Florida, which appears to be ground zero this year for legal battles over ballot language.
by | August 27, 2018
(Tribune News Service)

Last week, a Florida judge knocked what he called a "misleading" amendment off the state's November ballot.

If passed, the ballot measure would have placed term limits on school board members, would have required civic literacy to be promoted in schools, and would have "[permitted] the state to operate, control and supervise public schools not established by the school board."

The judge ruled that the ballot question was misleading for several reasons: One, its title could make voters believe they were only voting on term limits. Two, it didn't mention the words "charter schools" when it would have removed the school board's power to approve of them. And three, the ballot's backers -- the Florida Constitution Revision Commission (CRC) -- intentionally bundled three education proposals that are otherwise unrelated into one "to increase, in its view, their chances of passage," ruled Circuit Judge John Cooper.

Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi, a CRC member, filed an appeal on Tuesday. Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who appointed half of the CRC's members, has long been a supporter of charter schools.

"This is a partisan board, and in Florida, it’s a strongly Republican board,” says Craig Burnett, assistant professor of political science at Hofstra University. “[The CRC board] may not be politicians themselves, but they are politically savvy people who know how to play the game."

The CRC meets only once every 20 years and is the nation's only state commission with the power to refer constitutional amendments to the ballot. While legal battles over ballot language aren't unique to the Sunshine State, "Florida does seem to be at the center of this controversy," says Burnett. Amendment 8 was just one of several CRC-proposed ballot initiatives that critics believe are unconstitutionally bundled and confusing.

Amendment 6 combines three justice-related questions: one about giving crime victims more rights, another about raising the judicial retirement age and the third about judges' decision-making. Amendment 7 asks about first responder and military survivor benefits, college fees and higher education's governance structure. Amendment 9 poses, in one question, whether voters want to ban offshore drilling and vaping indoors. Amendment 10 combines state and local government structure measures. Amendment 11 lumps together questions about immigrants' property rights and high-speed rail.

The lawsuit over Amendment 8 was filed by the League of Women Voters, which claimed that the ballot initiative was unconstitutional, in part because it bundled two fairly uncontroversial issues -- school board term limits and civic literacy -- with the much more politically contentious matter of who approves and oversees charter schools.

"The commission know parts of this will be really popular and a slam dunk at the ballot box, but that’s not the case with charter schools," says Burnett. "They remain a contentious issue in states across the country."

The other amendments are under legal challenge from former Florida Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead and Florida Elections Commissioner Robert Barnas. The challenges and appeals must be resolved by Sept. 4. Although Florida is one of 14 states that prohibit mixing more than a single issue on a ballot measure, Burnett says it is "too difficult to predict how the court system would decide any case."

For its part, CRC members claimed they bunched the amendments out of concerns for voter fatigue.

Meanwhile in California, voters almost saw a similar bundled ballot measure. A single question would have asked voters to authorize bonds for addressing structural and environmental hazards in homes, schools and senior housing, and simultaneously to declare that lead-based paint is not a public nuisance. The measure was dropped.

Whitney Quesenbery, co-director of the Center for Civic Design, which has long advocated for simpler ballot language, says placing measures on the ballot that are confusing or contradictory often leads to people voting no on the initiative.

"If we want citizens engaged in government, we have to stop talking at them and start talking with them," says Quesenbery, "and you start that on the ballot."