Letter to the editor: Data-driven, digital grassroots petitions work too

Bill Cotterell is right that Florida ballot initiatives aren't very grassroots any more – but there is another way, J.J. Whitson writes.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

What if two conclusions could be true at the same time? That’s what I think after reading Bill Cotterell’s opinion (City & State Florida, June 20, 2023) about the pot petition signature campaign

Having worked on proposed citizen initiatives for over fifteen years, I certainly agree with Mr. Cotterell’s conclusion: Initiative petition campaigns are expensive and not at all “grassroots democracy” these days.

But why?

  • Increased Labor Costs – Hiring petition circulators has skyrocketed in recent years in part due to the Florida Legislature passing new laws that requires petition firms to pay circulators “by the hour” and not “by the petition.” This budget line item went from, on average, $5,850,000 in previous initiative campaigns to almost $40,000,000, as we saw with the recent pot amendment.
  • Increased Supervisor of Elections (SOEs) Verification Costs – In light of the voluminous petitions submitted to SOEs and their dismal validity rates during the previous election cycle (e.g., casino gaming & sports betting), most supervisors increased their respective verification costs. This budget line item went from, on average, $300,000 in previous initiative campaigns to approximately $1,000,000, depending on the validity rates.
  • Increased Threshold for Judicial/Financial Review – Section 15.21(c), F.S., requires 25% of petitions verified in one-half of the congressional districts to initiate judicial and financial impact review. Previously, the law was 10% of petitions verified in one-quarter of congressional districts.
  • New Petition Expiration Dates – Section 100.371(11)(a), F.S., states that all verified petitions for a proposed citizen initiative expire on February 1 of the even-numbered year of the same year that the sponsor would like to place the proposed citizen initiative on the ballot. Previously, the law stated petitions were valid for a two-year period from the date the voter signed the petition form.
  • New Petition Submission Timetable – Section 100.371(7)(a), F.S., requires petitions collected by paid petition circulators to be submitted to the appropriate SOEs within 30 days of the voter signing the petition. Previously, no deadline existed for the sponsor to submit petitions to SOEs.

There are more interesting wrinkles in the “New World Order” of the initiative petition process, but let’s move onto the second conclusion that I think is true: Initiative petition campaigns can be much less expensive AND feel like a grassroots campaign if done without paid petition circulators. I know, this conclusion sounds utopian, but hear me out.

What if the sponsor could leverage social and digital media with pin-point data to identify the appropriate number of registered voters who support their proposed citizen initiative? And then, send them a pre-filled petition to sign, date, and return to the sponsor?

This simple, but efficient process works – and receipts are available upon request.

To close, please know I concur with Mr. Cotterell: The Florida Legislature certainly made the citizen initiative process more expensive and less grassroots-y.

However, I think a data-driven, digital grassroots approach to these legislative hurdles will significantly reduce the overall cost of proposed citizens initiatives and more easily allow regular citizens access to the ballot by petition.

J.J. Whitson is principal of Whitson Digital Strategies focused on social and digital media management, content creation, and advertising with a unique perspective on statewide ballot initiatives in Florida.

NEXT STORY: Bill Cotterell: Pot petition shows fallacy of signature campaigns