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ACLU, former AG candidate seek injunction to stymie new Florida initiative contribution cap

Sean Shaw, Democratic candidate for Florida Attorney General, arrives for a campaign rally, Friday, Nov. 2, 2018, in Miami. AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

By John Haughey/The Center Square 

U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor has given Florida a June 15 deadline to defend a new state law that caps donations to political committees backing proposed constitutional amendments at $3,000 during the signature-gathering process.

On May 8, the ACLU of Florida filed the federal lawsuit in the Northern District of Florida in Tallahassee seeking to strike down Senate Bill 1890 as unconstitutional after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law the day before.

Last week, the ACLU and three committees sponsoring petition drives for proposed 2022 constitutional amendments filed a motion asking Winsor for a preliminary injunction against implementing SB 1890 before it goes into effect July 1.

The motion claims the $3,000 limit is unconstitutional and would prevent the three committees from collecting enough petition signatures to get proposed amendments before voters.

“If not enjoined, plaintiffs’ efforts to engage with voters, convince voters to support their initiatives, collect petitions and advance their initiatives will be severely impaired,” the motion states. “Indeed, if SB 1890’s contribution limit is not quickly struck down, plaintiffs will be unable to put their initiatives on the ballot.”

Florida lawmakers have imposed a raft of new restrictions over the last three years on the state’s initiative process.

In 2019, the GOP-controlled Legislature adopted bills requiring paid petition gatherers register with the secretary of state, outlawing paying gatherers for signatures collected, and imposing fines on petitions not turned in within 30 days.

During the 2020 session, lawmakers raised the threshold for mandatory Supreme Court language reviews to 25% of registered voters in at least 14 congressional districts, required sponsors to pay “actual cost” to validate signatures, reduced time signatures are valid, and required sponsors to secure at least 8% of voters in 18 districts to qualify.

To get on the November 2022 ballot, proposed amendments must garner 891,589 valid petition signatures. To receive approval of ballot wording from the Supreme Court, sponsors need 222,898 signatures. Under SB 1890, after a prospective measure secures that nod, the $3,000 contribution cap is lifted.

The ACLU and three committees argue in injunction motion that the cap is “an undue burden on their speech and associational rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

The First Amendment protects “a marketplace for the clash of different views and conflicting ideas,” the motion states, citing a precedent ruling.

“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.”

The three committees joining the ACLU’s suit were all formed May 21 and filed proposed constitutional amendments on May 28, raising the number of prospective 2022 ballot measures to 11.

All three are chaired by attorney Sean Shaw, a former 2016-18 Democratic state House representative, 2018 Democratic attorney general candidate defeated by Republican Ashley Moody, and son of Leander J Shaw, Jr., the first African American to serve as chief justice of Florida’s Supreme Court.

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