The general election ballot in Florida holds more than an opportunity to vote for elected officials. It includes six constitutional amendments voters are asked to consider. To be adopted, a constitutional amendment must receive at least 60 percent approval of all votes cast for and against it.
What will you be asked to vote on? And who is behind the amendments?
It helps to understand that both the state legislature and other organizations have historically used constitutional amendments to help drive their particular supporters, whether right or left, to the polls. Some amendments are as much a get-out-the-vote effort as they are an effort to make a significant change in the law.
Amendments to the constitution are most commonly proposed by the Florida legislature or by groups (usually political action committees, or PACs) that have gathered a number of valid signatures equaling eight percent of the vote in the last Florida presidential election in at least half of Florida’s 27 Congressional districts. Ballot signatures for this year’s amendments had to be verified before Feb. 1, before the pandemic began.
Amendment 1: Citizenship Requirement to Vote in Florida Elections
Current Florida law requires all Florida voters to be citizens of the U.S. The language of the Florida constitution currently reads, “Every citizen of the United States who is at least eighteen years of age and who is a permanent resident of the state, if registered as provided by law…” can vote. The amendment calls for changing the word “every” with “Only a.”
Supporters of the amendment state it will protect from voter fraud. Opponents of the amendment charge that its petition drive was funded by Florida utilities to make it more difficult for another petition drive, aimed at deregulating Florida’s utilities, from collecting enough petition signatures and having them counted by the Feb. 1 deadline. (Petition drives often compete for signatures gatherers, which bids up signature gathering costs.) The competing drive did not get its Florida utility deregulation petition on the ballot.
This amendment was placed on the ballot through a petition drive conducted by Florida Citizen Voters, an organization which is registered to postal box at a UPS store in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, and which has declined to identify the donors funding the effort.
Amendment 2: Raising Florida’s Minimum Wage
If passed, this amendment would raise Florida’s minimum wage, currently $8.56 per hour, to $15 per hour in steps. The amendment would raise the state’s minimum wage to $10 per hour on Sept. 30, 2021 and raise it by one more dollar each Sept. 30 of each following year until it reached $15 in 2026. The minimum wage would then be indexed to inflation starting in 2027.
Florida attorney John Morgan, previously a Democrat currently registered Independent, is chair of the PAC, called Florida for a Fair Wage (https://floridafairwage.com/), which funded and gathered the signatures for this amendment. Opponents of the amendment, which include the Florida Chamber of Commerce, insist the increased wage will lead to increased consumer prices and job losses. Supporters argue that minimum wage workers, representing many women and minorities, cannot live on the current wage.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 and has not been raised since 2009.
Amendment 3: All Voters Vote in Primary Elections
Currently Florida is a closed primary state. Only Republicans select their preferred candidates in their primary election and Democrats pick their candidates in their primary, with the winners of both party primaries running in the general election. This approach locks out voters not belonging to a party (Independents), who represent nearly a third of Florida’s voters.
This amendment, if passed, would create a non-partisan blanket primary, sometimes called a “jungle” primary, in which independents would have a vote in elections for Florida’s governor, cabinet and legislature. (Other federal and local offices will not be affected.)
Under this amendment while candidates could still be listed by party if they wished, all candidates would appear on the same primary ballot voted on by all registered voters. And the top two vote recipients, regardless of party, would then run in the general election. If only two candidates file for a seat, they would automatically appear on the general election ballot, allowing every voter the chance to select the winner. (In Florida’s current closed primary system, if only two candidates from the same party file for a seat, only voters within their party get to select the winner in the closed primary, excluding other voters from the election.)
Supporters argue such primaries increase voter participation, discourage candidates from appealing to the bases of their parties, create more moderate candidates and limit hyper-partisan behavior.
Opponents have expressed concern that candidates would not have to list their party affiliations under the amendment and that such primaries make it more difficult for minority and minor party candidates to win races.
All Voters Vote, Inc. (https://allvotersvote.org/) of Tallahassee is responsible for the drive that put this measure on the ballot.
Amendment 4: Voter Approval of Constitutional Amendments
Many constitutional amendments are sponsored by groups who use the ballot amendment process to do an end-run around the Florida legislature when it won’t consider or approve the laws they propose. Opponents of such amendments accuse proponents of using the amendment process to pursue frivolous matters that don’t belong in the state constitution. Given that Republicans control the Florida legislature, many liberal/progressive groups rely on the amendment process to win legislative changes that are supported by the population but opposed by the legislature. In recent years, the Florida legislature has put amendments on the ballot to make approving constitutional amendments harder to do. This year an organization called Keep Our Constitution Clean (https://keepourconstitutionclean.org/), led a PAC run by Jason Haber, a Fort Lauderdale attorney and chairman of the Republicans Against Green Energy PAC, gathered the signatures to place this amendment on the ballot, which would further raise the bar on passing future amendments.
If passed, this amendment would require all future amendments to receive 60 percent of voter approval in two separate elections, occurring at least 10 weeks apart. What makes this a new barrier is that Florida midterm elections in non-presidential election years tend to have lower turnout and a greater proportion of conservative Florida voters while the higher voter participation of presidential election years often brings out a very different electorate. If passed, this amendment will make future constitutional amendments favored by more liberal or progressive groups much more difficult and expensive (due to campaign costs) to pass. Thus, individuals and groups that are supporters of this amendment tend to lean conservative while opponents to this amendment tend to lean liberal.
Amendment 5: Limitations on Homestead Property Tax Assessments
If approved this amendment will increase the period of time during which the state’s Save-Our-Homes benefits may be transferred from a prior homestead to a new homestead from two to three years.
The Save-Our-Homes benefit was put in place in 1995. It was established to protect homeowners who saw home values rise significantly, triggering higher assessments and property tax bills. This benefit annually limits assessment increases to a maximum of three percent on homesteaded properties. This reduced-tax benefit can then be transferred when you buy a new home.
Supporters state the amendment will address a timing problem. Homestead exemptions take effect on Jan. 1, meaning homes that are purchased late in the year have less than two years to file the transfer. For example, a home purchased in December would have one year and a few days to file for the transfer.
Opponents of the amendment say that tax law should be left to the legislature, which can more easily change laws to address emergency economic issues. The change would also somewhat reduce tax revenue to local counties.
This amendment was placed on the ballot by the Florida legislature.
Amendment 6: Ad Valorem Tax Discount for Spouses of Certain Deceased Veterans
Veterans with permanent combat-related disabilities have an additional homestead exemption to lower their property taxes. If approved, this amendment would extend that additional exemption, once the veterans die, to their spouses who hold title to the home until that spouse remarries or sells the home. In some cases, it would also permit the surviving spouse to transfer the additional homestead exemption to the purchase of a new home.
This amendment was placed on the ballot by the Florida legislature, which argues it provides important protections to surviving military spouses of disabled veterans. Its opponents argue that tax laws should be left out of the constitution and be left to the legislature; this change would also reduce property tax revenue to local counties.