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Court: Petition Signatures Cannot Be Revoked

The Florida Supreme Court said Thursday that a petition-signature revocation law, passed in 2007, substantially burdened the rights of citizen-led efforts to change the Constitution.

The court threw out the signature revocation law in June in an emergency order after being asked by Florida Hometown Democracy to void the law. But the court didn’t issue its opinion explaining the ruling until Thursday.

In 2007, the Legislature passed a law allowing voters who signed a ballot initiative petition to later cancel their signature, thus allowing counter campaigns to surface and potentially stop an initiative from ever reaching the voters.

Leslie Blackner, president of Hometown Democracy, filed suit against the state, saying the new law was unconstitutional. Hometown Democracy is pushing an amendment that would require local votes before changes in growth plans.

The group, which has since qualified for the November 2010 ballot, was facing opposition from several groups and feared that many signers would be convinced to change their minds, thereby thwarting Hometown Democracy's chances at making the ballot.

“All opposition has tried every trick in the book to derail us,” Blackner said Thursday.

A circuit court sided with the state, but the First District Court of Appeal overturned the decision in 2008. When it came before the Florida Supreme Court, lawyers for Secretary of State Kurt Browning argued that the law gives voters a chance to change their minds, particularly if they were not fully informed about the issue in the first place. It would also help rout out forgeries, the state argued.

The court disagreed, in a 4-2 decision, writing that even though the initiative-petition method is a state-created right, it does “not mean that the Legislature possesses unbounded authority to limit the constitutional right.”

“These signature-revocation provisions substantially burden the constitutional rights of initiative proponents and initiative signatories by affording initiative opponents an unopposed, definitive opportunity to ?persuade electors to revoke their signatures for any reason and by any means, even illegitimate,” the opinion reads.
The law was not initially proposed by the Department of State, but pushed by the business lobby, which is generally opposed to the Hometown Democracy amendment, arguing it will stifle economic growth. However, Browning, as secretary of state, is charged with upholding election laws.

Jennifer Krell Davis, a spokeswoman for Browning, said the department is “still processing the opinion.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ricky Polston, with Justice Charles Canady concurring, wrote that the “revocation provisions are necessary for ballot integrity.

“It is not unconstitutional for the Florida Legislature to allow electors to revoke their signatures when they may have been obtained by undue influence, intimidation, or fraud or when the electors have simply changed their minds after being persuaded on the merits otherwise,” Polston wrote. “It is reasonable to empower electors with control over their own signatures so that they are not required to have their signatures on petitions counted against their will.”

Justice James Perry, the seventh justice on the court, did not participate in the decision because he was not appointed to the high court until March 2009, two months after the case was heard by the court.

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