The Sorry State of Representative Government in Florida

One-third of Florida Legislature faces no opposition at polls

Michael Van Sickler reports.

TALLAHASSEE — Millions of voters in Florida will get no vote in choosing who represents them in the Florida House and Senate next year. That’s because the deadline for candidates expired at noon Friday with no challengers qualifying to run against a third of the state Legislature.

The lack of opposition means candidates for eight state Senate seats — all incumbent Republicans — and 38 House seats, all but one an incumbent, automatically won their seats despite no ballots being cast in those districts. That will make 2014 even less competitive than 2012, when 24 percent of lawmakers ran unopposed.

More here.

Will Citizens have a Chance to Vote for the Popular Referendum in Florida?

Florida State Senator Paula Dockery, a Republican from Lakeland, and Representative Richard Steinberg, a Democrat from Miami Beach, have filed companion bills that would permit citizens to “veto” certain bills if signed into law by the governor.  Budgetary and emergency legislation would be exempt from citizen vetoes under Dockery’s Senate Joint Resolution 1490 and Steinberg’s House Joint Resolution 1231. If passed by the state legislature, the legislation would be put forth to the voters in 2012 in the form of a constitutional amendment, which would need 60% + 1 approval for passage.

The popular referendum–which dates to the early 1900s in several states–allows a person or group to file a petition to have a public vote on a bill that the legislature has already approved. Every one of the two dozen states that permit the initiative process also allows citizens to propose popular referendums, except for Florida, Illinois, and Mississippi. The popular referendum, which has been used with more frequency in the past decade, is effectively a public veto of a law. Proponents may qualify popular referendums for the ballot by collecting a certain percentage of signatures in a set amount of time following the passage of the legislation in question. It’s the quintessential “gun behind the door” that allows citizens to keep their elected officials in check.

Despite the popular support for direct democracy in Florida, the political environment at this moment is not very conducive for the state legislature to devolve power to citizens.

I have a 2008 article, “Delegating Direct Democracy: Interparty Legislative Competition and the Adoption of the Initiative in the American States,” that was published in the American Political Science Review with my graduate student, Dustin Fridkin, that investigates the widespread adoption of direct democracy–specifically the citizen initiative–during the early 20th century.  It is available here for download.

From the abstract:

Between 1898 and 1918, voters in 20 American states adopted constitutional amendments granting citizens the power of the initiative. The embrace of direct democracy by voters invites inquiry into why some state legislatures opted to delegate to citizens the power of the initiative, while others did not. Drawing on an original data set, this article uses Event History Analysis hazard models to explain the puzzle of why legislatures might devolve institutional power to citizens. Our longitudinal, macrolevel analysis of socioeconomic and political forces reveals that political considerations—interparty legislative competition, party organizational strength, and third parties—are the most powerful predictors of a legislature’s decision to refer the initiative to the ballot. Although several of our findings comport with the conventional wisdom explaining the adoption of the initiative during the Progressive Era, others are surprising, offering us new theoretical insights into why and when legislative bodies might be willing to divest themselves of their institutional power.

Absent interparty legislative competition in Florida (Republicans are dominant) and the utter lack of third parties in the state, I don’t think the time is ripe for the legislature to place a popular referendum on the ballot. This is unfortunate, as the citizen’s veto–as the popular referendum is often called–has proven to be an effective tool for citizens to use to keep their unrepresentative legislature in check and more responsive to the people.

My Latest Research on Legislative Reapportionment

…in Ghana (West Africa).

For all of you Floridaphiles (or Floridaphobes), don’t worry…I’m working on a paper examining the popular support for Amendments 5 & 6 in Florida.

And for those of you interested in nonpartisan election commissions and the allocation of parliamentary seats in Africa, by all means, plow ahead.

The Re-demarcation and Reapportionment of Parliamentary Constituencies in Ghana

Introduction

In February, 2011, the Ghana Statistical Service (GSS)
released provisional results of the 2010 Population and
Housing Census. All eyes are now on Ghana’s National
Electoral Commission (EC), as it is constitutionally required
to use the new census data to determine the allocation,
demarcation, and apportionment of parliamentary
constituencies in the country. In this essay, I attempt to
address—from an admittedly Americanist standpoint1—
questions pertaining to legislative representation in Ghana.
I argue that the EC is uniquely equipped to carry out its
constitutional duty to prescribe the boundaries of the
country’s parliamentary constituencies, as mandated under
Article 47 of the 1992 Constitution. Yet, as the EC embarks
upon its re-demarcation and reapportionment duties, there
is good reason for Ghanaians of all political stripes to be
concerned. The EC’s decision in 2003 to create 30
additional parliamentary constituencies based on the
boundaries of administrative districts is fraught with unsettling
representational and political ramifications, yet it has not
received the kind of critical scrutiny it deserves.

By no means is this essay an attack on the Electoral
Commission. Since the commencement of Ghana’s 4th
Republic, on a range of contentious issues—from the
maintenance of the voters’ register and distribution of voter
registration cards, to staffing polling stations and tabulating
and announcing the final vote, to current considerations of
overseas voting and biometric ID cards—the Chairman of
the EC, Dr. Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, and the EC staff have
continually stepped up to the challenge. Of course, the EC
is not without its critics. Nevertheless, the EC is the envy of
democracy advocates throughout the sub-region and
beyond, as outsiders recognize the many institutional benefits
of having a permanent, independent, nonpartisan elections
commission overseeing the electoral process.

As a scholar whose nonpartisan interests are informed
by democratic theory and questions of representation,
my concerns with the allocation and demarcation of
parliamentary seats in Ghana today remain as ardent as
when I first broached the topic a decade ago.2 I restrict
my comments here to the EC’s immediate task of
demarcating and apportioning parliamentary seats in
Ghana. I begin with comparative insights on the
redistricting process in the American states, discussing
the partisan task of drawing single-member legislative
districts. I then discuss the EC’s decision in 2003 to
apportion 30 new parliamentary constituencies, using
existing administrative districts—rather than the
“population quota”—as its guiding principle. In doing so,
I analyze how the EC’s rationale may be exacerbating
the problem of malapportioned parliamentary seats. I
use the GSS’s preliminary Census 2010 data, as well as
administrative district data across the 10 regions, to
conduct an analysis of the current distribution of
parliamentary seats in the country. My research reveals
the unequal allocation of parliamentary seats across the
country with respect to their populations. I conclude by
discussing some of the representational and political issues
stemming from the EC’s rationale to use administrative
districts to allocate parliamentary seats.

Full essay available here

Will Florida Election Law #HB1355 Increase Absentee Ballot Voter Fraud?

I’ve been writing a lot over the past five months about House Bill 1355, dubbed by many as Florida’s ignominious voter suppression law. HB1355  is being challenge in federal court, and the US Justice Department has yet to grant preclearance of portions of the law which cover five Florida counties covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.  Defending the law, the Florida Secretary of State is suing in Federal Court to not only uphold all sections of the law, but to strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Most of the attention that I and others have given to HB1355 has focused on three areas that the GOP-controlled legislature cracked down on in order to make it more difficult for citizens of Florida to register to vote and cast a ballot, namely:

1) Reducing the number of days for early voting from 14 days to eight days, and altogether eliminating early voting on the Sunday before the Tuesday election.

2) Requiring third-party voter registration organizations to submit voter registration applications within 48 hours of receipt instead of ten days as provided by existing law, and imposing a fine of $50 for each failure to comply with the deadline, and imposing fines up to $1,000 for failing to comply with other provisions.

3) Disallowing voters who move from one Florida county to another to make an address change at the polls on the day of an election and vote a regular ballot, except for active military voters and their family members.

(Less attention has been given to the portion of the law that reduces the shelf-life of citizen initiative petition signatures proposing constitutional amendments from four years to two years.)

Virtually no attention has been given to HB1355’s impact on absentee voting in Florida. The reason is fairly simple: the law has actually made it easier for citizens to cast an absentee ballot, and actually, increases the likelihood of voter fraud.

Absentee ballot fraud is not limited to Miami mayoral races. Just yesterday, several people in Madison County, including a candidate for school board, were arrested and charged with obtaining absentee ballots for other people without the voters’ knowledge or consent.  The candidate and her accomplices then provided an alternate address for the ballots to be mailed by the Supervisor of Elections, and allegedly then retrieved the ballots from the third party locations, brought the ballots to the voter, sometimes with the ballots already filled out, and then had the voter sign the absentee ballot signature envelope.

Tragically, HB1355 eliminates the provision that existed in 2010 when the fraud occurred, making future absentee ballot fraud more difficult to prosecute. Prior to the election code being changed by the Republican legislature in 2011, Supervisors of Elections were required to send absentee ballot to a voter’s registered address, unless the voter was absent from the county, hospitalized, or temporarily unable to occupy their residence.

But these provisions to reduce the possibility of absentee voter fraud were stricken by HB1355.  Instead of being required (with the forgoing exceptions) to send an absentee ballot “By nonforwardable, return-if-undeliverable mail to the elector’s current mailing address on file with the supervisor,” supervisors now may be asked by anyone (even over the phone) to mail an absentee ballot “to any other address the elector specifies in the request.”

HB1355 is an embarrassment, plain and simple. The Republican-controlled legislature’s intention was not to reduce voter fraud, of which there is virtually none when it comes to voter registration and early voting.  The reason lawmakers turned a blind eye to absentee ballots in the state–where there is clear evidence of voter fraud–is because registered Republicans are much more likely to use this form of convenience voting than their Democratic counterparts.  In 2008, Republicans had a 10.8% lead over Democrats voting absentee ballots by Election Day.

Partisan politics in Florida have reached a new low.

Why the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature Limited Voter Registration

I’ve written a considerable amount about the negative impact HB1355 likely will have on early voting in Florida. But the regressive law also affects the ability of Florida citizens to register to vote.

The Republican-controlled legislature’s rationale for the law–steeped in the anti-democratic rhetoric of making voting a privilege, not a right–continues to conjur up vestiges of Jim Crowism. “We’re going to have a very tight election here next year, and we need to protect the integrity of the election,” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, a Republican from Ocala. “When we looked around, we saw a need for some tightening.”

With respect to the severe restrictions placed on “third parties” (including individual citizens) interested in helping fellow citizens to register to vote, Republican lawmakers are surely cognizant of the surge of African Americans who registered to vote in Florida prior to the 2008 general election.

As I write with my co-author, Stephanie Slade (who works for The Winston Group, a Republican pollster based in DC) in a recent article on the 2008 election in Florida, “Obama to Blame? African American Surge Voters and the Ban on Same-Sex Marriage in Florida,”

Between December of 2007 and October of 2008, an additional 233,130 black Floridians registered to vote, a group of citizens we have referred to as the Obama-inspired African American surge. If these voters turned out at the same rate as the Florida electorate as a whole in the 2008 presidential election (74.6 percent), black surge voters would have constituted 173,915 of 8.39 million total votes cast for all the presidential candidates.

The numbers speak for themselves.

This spring, Republican lawmakers changed the rules to try to ensure that there will be no African American “surge voters” in 2012.

It will be up to the US Justice Department, as well as several interveners (including the ACLU, NAACP, and the League of Women Voters)–but ultimately the federal courts–to determine whether they ultimately succeed in their effort to suppress the vote in Florida.