Monday, January 21, 2008

500 miles and a mule, by gimleteye

From populous South Florida, you can fly to most European capitals for less than it costs to fly five hundred miles to the state capital, Tallahassee. For most people, Tallahassee is far away as the moon.

For citizens who would like to provide balance to the public interest through legislative reform, there is a single alternative to persuading the legislature to change laws or write new and better ones: changing the Florida constitution through referendum at the ballot.

To do so, it is necessary first to qualify the measure through the state supreme court-- then gain sufficient signatures to qualify for a state-wide election.

Some people have spent millions of dollars trying to use the referendum process to change the Florida constitution. But it doesn't always work, even when you win.

The most notorious example is what happened in 1996 when Everglades activists led by Paul Tudor Jones, a hedge fund manager, won a referendum, holding sugar "primarily responsible" for cleaning up its pollution.

But the victory required action by the Florida legislature. Not only did the legislature fail to act, when it did finally act it passed new pollution standards promoted by the sugar industry that make it LESS likely sugar will ever be held accountable.

It would have been a different story if the Everglades measure had been self-actuating; in other words, requiring no action by the legislature. Such a referendum, for instance, passed by voters in 2004 stopped plans by industrial pork producers from building factory farms in Florida.

Holding the "pregnant pig amendment" as an example of abuse of the referendum process, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and industries qualified their own ballot referendum in 2006: they called it Amendment 3, "protecting the Florida constitution". In fact, it was a measure that raised the threshold of qualified voter to sign petitions to a supermajority.

There was a very good reason that corporations invested millions to pass its measure establishing a national precedent for sixty percent, to qualify for popular vote. it had nothing to do with pregnant pigs.

It had to do with the incipient citizens' revolt called Florida Hometown Democracy.

Two Florida attorneys, Lesley Blackner of Palm Beach County, and Ross Burnaman, of Leon County, had decided to mount a referendum campaign around the broad public anger at the way Florida was being paved over, from one end of the state to another, with bad development despite growth management law.

They devised a measure and hoped to qualify it for the 2008 fall election:

Florida Hometown Democracy would put citizens back in a position of power over development decisions by local government by requiring a public vote on long-term development plans.

For FHD to qualify for the 2008 state-wide ballot, 611,009 valid petitions are required. And reaching that magic number is a formidable task.

Under the pressure of time, Florida Hometown Democracy organizers have had to resort to paid petition gatherers.

You've probably seen them, at one time or another, gathered outside stores or parking lots or other public places. They carry clipboards and offer them up alongside canned pitches that may or may not be accurate. If you like the sound of the petition and you have the time to stop, you might sign your name, along with your date of birth or election registration and address.

The petition gatherers are paid by the signature and not for accuracy. The firms that employ the gatherers, as independent contractors, are itinerant carpet-baggers. They go from state to state, hiring workers, mapping out walk routes and locations, garnering two to three dollars per petition.

But they are not paid to validate signatures: That is the work of the local or state elections agency.

In turn, the local or state elections agency hires temporary workers for the task of matching petitions to voter rolls. It is tedious work and lightly supervised when a surge of petitions from various referenda come streaming in, just before a deadline.

In short: the key to changing the Florida constitution by referendum is held by seat-of-the pants, fly-by-night operators and run by temporary, piece workers.

Corporate Florida pledged to spend whatever it takes to defeat Florida Hometown Democracy. And it has: mounting its own counter-initiative that sounds just like FHD except for toxic fine print.

It has also bought the allegiance of the carpet-bagger petition gathering firms, by offering more money per signed petition.

From inside the petition gathering firms, there may have been even greater malfeasance: local elections offices are turning up higher than average rates of rejects for Florida Hometown Democracy, leading to speculation that Florida Hometown Democracy was sabotaged by firms or their independent contractors who may have fabricated signatures.

The February 1st deadline is fast approaching for qualifying state-wide ballot referenda for the 2008 fall election cycle, an election that will be especially trying for the economic and political status quo.

The Florida economy, in the midst of a recession, is listing under the weight of a sharp contraction in housing markets.

Florida Hometown Democracy, if it qualified for the state-wide ballot, would have electrified the playing field. Voters are likely going to miss that opportunity, for the time being.

Holed up in cheap hotel rooms across the state, petition gatherers paid by the piece may have torpedo'd Florida Hometown Democracy. If this is what happened, it is the kind of carnival con job that once held sway in an earlier Florida, when barkers held forth the promise of the strange, the odd, and the bizarre for a penny or two.

Nowadays, it is called representative democracy.


Anonymous said...

So what you are saying is that the thievs and criminals who are bought by the dozen which includes our elected officials are all under the rule of the bad guys who are ruining our State. Therefore the only way we have any chance to protect ourselves and our State is to vote out all of the bastards who are in and find honest people willing to run and vote them in. Good luck.

out of sight said...

I am depressed and puzzled about the decline in ethics in this county, state and county. Has the boomer generation not passed anything on to our children of value?
Or is this the result of others coming into the country bringing their way of doing business and not learning ours?

I have no hope for good government.

The people who have always been our champions, our dragon slayers, are getting older, tired, weary and financially unable to continue to fight the demons. And our children, the people who will have to live with the world as it is delivered to them, are clueless or lazy about protecting their futures. How sad.

Anonymous said...

I asked a younger person about this subject, along the same lines as reasoned by out of sight.

She said to me, that young people look at the world and see the problems of our democracy as too overwhelming and beyond their reach.

It is exactly as special interests want the world to be: a world where complexity and specialization cast a tight net around people, making them feel helpless.