Judge hears challenge to contribution cap

Author: Dara Kam/ News Service Florida
Former Tampa lawmaker Sean Shaw. Credit: News Service Florida.

Backers of initiatives to expand voting urged a federal judge on Thursday to block a new law that imposes a $3,000 limit on contributions to political committees collecting petition signatures to put proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and three political committees are challenging the law, arguing the contribution limit imposes an unconstitutional burden on political speech. Republican lawmakers passed the cap in April as part of a years-long effort to make it more difficult for citizens to amend the state Constitution.

Critics of the law, slated to go into effect on July 1, contend that the contribution cap effectively will make it impossible to collect the hundreds of thousands of signatures required to place proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot.

The ACLU of Florida and the political committees, which are trying to get voting-expansion initiatives on the November 2022 ballot, are asking U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor to issue a preliminary injunction to block the law from going into effect.

During a Thursday hearing, plaintiffs’ witnesses told Winsor that the cap will discourage them from donating to the political committees and harm the committees’ ability to collect the requisite number of signatures.

“Right now we’re experiencing donors who are hesitant … because they’re concerned about the viability” of the campaigns once the $3,000 cap goes into effect, ACLU of Florida deputy political director Sara Latshaw testified.

Henri Ilene Spiegel, a retired lawyer from Miami Beach, said that, without the caps, she would have contributed to the voting-expansion campaigns. But Spiegel said she’s unwilling to spend money on the efforts because the contribution limits will hamstring the campaigns’ chances of success.

“It sort of hobbles them moving forward,” she said.

But a lawyer representing the Florida Elections Commission urged Winsor to give the state more time to consider the consequences of the law instead of issuing a preliminary injunction.

“Give us a chance to build a little bit of a record … to find out a little bit more about how these petitions are run and what really will be the impact,” Elizabeth Ann Teegan, a lawyer with Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office, told Winsor. Moody’s office is representing the commission.

Speaking to reporters after Thursday’s hearing, ACLU of Florida attorney Nicholas Warren said he believed Winsor would issue a ruling before the law is slated to go into effect.

“This law is an unconstitutional burden on Floridians’ rights to band together and pool their resources and advocate for the issues they believe in,” he said.

The political committees, headed by former Tampa lawmaker Sean Shaw, last month filed three proposed constitutional amendments, including a measure that would register people to vote when they get driver’s licenses and a measure that would allow people to register and vote at the same time.

The committees, known as Our Votes Matter, Florida Votes Matter and Fair Vote Florida, each need an estimated $9 million to collect enough signatures before the end of the year, Shaw said during Thursday’s hearing.

The $3,000 cap “is not adequate to fund a statewide campaign,” Shaw said, adding, “I don’t think we can gather the requisite signatures in the time allotted.”

In urging the judge to block the law, Warren argued that individuals who make campaign contributions in excess of the cap would face criminal and civil penalties.

“Just the threat of an investigation is a burden on political speech,” Warren said. “That core speech is severely burdened by this limit.”

But Teegan noted that the nine-member, governor-appointed Florida Elections Commission, which investigates elections wrongdoing, has not had a quorum for several years. The commission currently has four members, Teegan told Winsor.

The lack of a quorum on the elections-oversight panel is an “interesting wrinkle,” the judge said. But Winsor also pointed out that state attorneys can seek sanctions in elections cases.

Winsor said he will “get an order out” soon on the request for a preliminary injunction, adding that he is “aware of the July 1 effective date” but “can’t promise” his decision will be issued earlier.

In court documents filed this month, lawyers in Moody’s office described the contribution cap as “temporary” because it would only apply until initiative supporters have submitted enough petition signatures to reach the ballot. Contributions would not be capped during the final months of campaigns about ballot initiatives.

The document also echoed arguments by Republican lawmakers that the cap is needed to ensure that amendment drives aren’t only funded by deep-pocketed special interests.

“Here, the challenged provision creates a temporary, targeted cap on contributions to ballot initiative committees during the signature-gathering process to ensure the integrity of the state’s process for amending the Florida Constitution — the charter of Florida’s government,” the lawyers in Moody’s office wrote. “The cap allows potential signatories (i.e., registered voters), who might be asked to lend their signatures to an initiative petition during the interactive in-person signature-gathering phase, to have assurance that the funding for the initiative is provided by many donors at no more than $3,000 each and that the significant funding needed for a successful initiative petition has not been provided by a small handful, or even a single, very well-heeled special interest donor.”

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