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Big issues and big money set tone for constitutional amendment campaigns

TALLAHASSEE – While the race for the White House dominates Florida politics, a half-dozen proposed constitutional amendments set for the same November ballot could have a dramatic effect on state elections and household incomes.

These down-ballot items won’t grab voters’ attention like the clash between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden. But some of these campaigns are driven by the same degree of dark money intrigue, outsize personalities and culture conflicts as the presidential contest.

Consider Amendment 2, which would increase the state’s minimum wage to $15. The pay raise is the brainchild of John Morgan, the Orlando trial lawyer whose firm’s $4.6 million basically financed the ballot campaign, just as he did with medical marijuana measures in 2014 and 2016.

“Our polling has been good,” Morgan said. “And I think it will pass because the pandemic has helped, not hurt.  Think of it: There’s a new phrase in our vocabulary: essential workers. We have a much greater appreciation of essential workers.”

But a recently launched Vote No on 2 campaign, spearheaded by the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, says that raising the state’s minimum wage from $8.56 gradually to $15 per hour by September 2026 will be a business killer, on top of the pandemic.

“It’s a bad amendment; it’s going to be even worse now that COVID has hit,” said Carol Dover, FRLA president and CEO. “Those who think they’re going in voting themselves a pay raise are most likely voting themselves out of a job.”

For an amendment to pass, at least 60% of those voting must support it. The first ballots already have been sent to overseas voters and stateside military for the November contests.

With almost one million Floridians out of work and many more with reduced hours, the minimum wage proposal is a tangible pocketbook issue before voters. Opponents, though, argue the raise will only force already struggling businesses to reduce their staff in a troubled economy.

While Floridians sort through the impact of Amendment 2, another measure, Amendment 3, has riveted the attention of the state’s major political parties, which both oppose it.

Amendment 3, dubbed “All Voters Vote,” would allow every voter – including those with no party affiliation – to cast a ballot in primary contests for governor, Legislature and Cabinet offices, which have been limited to voters from the parties since at least 1913.

The amendment creates a single so-called “jungle primary” that would allow the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, to advance to the general election.

Supporters, led by Miami health care investor Mike Fernandez, who has poured $6.2 million of his own money into the campaign, say the change will help yield more centrist candidates. Instead of playing to the political extremes in both parties, middle-of-the-road contenders would have appeal to more voters, the reasoning goes.

Fernandez is a former Republican who broke with the party over Trump’s election.

“We’re hopeful voters will read the ballot language for themselves and cut away the propaganda and the noise,” said Steve Vancore, a Tallahassee consultant working with the All Voters Vote campaign.

“Ask yourself, do I want to be able to vote for the person who’s going to represent me in Tallahassee? Because right now, a vast majority of voters are not allowed to vote for the person who ultimately represents them,” he added.

In a rare confluence, both the Florida Democratic and Republican parties are fighting the measure.

Terrie Rizzo, the Florida Democratic chair, said it would allow “wealthy special interests to force both the Democratic and Republican parties to have fewer candidates running for office.” A Florida GOP spokeswoman, Alia Faraj, also said the measure will “make it easier for special interest groups and individuals to manipulate the elections process.”

The Florida League of Women Voters, which had supported the open primary measure, reversed its backing recently citing data that showed Amendment 3 could reduce minority representation in the state Legislature.

Two of the league’s board members resigned over the reversal.

“Our concern is the voters, not the parties,” said Patricia Brigham, the League’s president. “Having two candidates from the same party advancing is not going to bring parity to the system. We are in favor of open primaries, but not where only the top two advance.”

Two of the other amendments facing voters have a deep history in shady politics.

Amendment 1 would change the Florida Constitution to read that “only a” citizen of the U.S. can vote in Florida, from the current “every” citizen can vote.

Some scholars say it changes nothing – but the murky nonprofit Citizen Voters Inc. has spent $8.3 million in getting  it on the ballot.

The chair of the campaign, John Loudon, is a former Missouri legislator living in West Palm Beach and, along with his wife, Gina, are members of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club.

While the measure fits with the anti-immigrant tone of the Trump administration, Loudon wouldn’t directly address whether it’s designed to lure more of the president’s backers to the polls.

Instead, Loudon warned that some Democratic-leaning states have considered allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections and that San Francisco has allowed noncitizens to cast ballots in school board elections.

“Our polling shows majority support among all demographics – most significantly among naturalized citizens who worked hard to win their citizenship and the right to vote,” Loudon said. “They don’t want others jumping the line.”

But the Citizen Voters measure, along with Amendment 4 – which would require any future constitutional amendment be approved in two separate general elections by voters – also presented a hurdle for another proposal fiercely opposed by Florida’s biggest utilities.

That ballot measure would have deregulated Florida utilities, allowing alternate energy companies a better shot at the lucrative state market.

Although the Florida Supreme Court ultimately found the ballot language unconstitutional, the deregulation measure struggled to gain signatures, with both the Citizens Voters and so-called Keep Our Constitution Clean proposal paying premium rates and demanding noncompete agreements for petition gatherers.

The Keep Our Constitution Clean proposal also has spent $9 million to get on the ballot, with money funneled through a nonprofit of the same name. Like Citizens Voters, its individual donors are concealed.

But federal tax records show some of Keep Our Constitution Clean’s earliest financing is linked to Associated Industries of Florida, which lobbies on behalf of the state’s largest industries, including utilities.

Businesses, generally, are wary of constitutional amendments that enact policies bypassed by the Legislature, which companies exert significant control over through campaign contributions. Associated Industries, though, wouldn’t address any behind-the-scenes involvement.

“AIF does not discuss political activity,” said Sarah Bascom, a spokeswoman for both AIF and for Keep Our Constitution Clean.

While the four amendments spawned by signature campaigns are the most combative, the six-pack of proposals going before voters is rounded out with a pair of less controversial tax incentives put on the ballot by the Legislature.

Amendment 5 would increase the period – from two years to three – that the “Save Our Homes” tax assessment benefit can be transferred when buying a new homestead property.

Amendment 6 would allow for any homestead property discount now received by veterans to transfer to their spouse when they die.

About this series

The News-Journal is highlighting key races as Election Day nears. Here's the schedule:

Last Sunday: House District 27

Monday: House District 26

Tuesday: Volusia Council Chair

Wednesday: Volusia County Council Seat 4

Thursday: Volusia County Council Seat 2

Friday: Palm Coast mayor

Saturday: ECHO, Volusia Forever

Today: Statewide ballot questions

Miss a day? Catch up online at