In a pair of high-profile issues that could go on the ballot next year, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday approved proposed constitutional amendments that would restore felons' voting rights and restrict the expansion of gambling in the state.
The court's approval of the measures is a critical initial step, but supporters still face the task of collecting hundreds of thousands of petition signatures to get the proposals on the November 2018 ballot.
Groups backing both initiatives quickly said they will move forward with collecting and submitting the required 766,200 signatures to reach the ballot. Supporters of the gambling measure had submitted 74,626 signatures as of Thursday, while backers of the felon-voting initiative had submitted 71,209, according to the state Division of Elections.
"We are pleased that the Supreme Court has approved the language of this amendment and we can move forward with our efforts to ensure that Florida voters --- not gambling industry influence and deal making --- are the ultimate authority when it comes to deciding whether or not to expand gambling in our state," said John Sowinski, chairman of Voters In Charge, a group spearheading the gambling measure.
The Supreme Court does not rule on the merits of proposed constitutional amendments but looks at issues such as whether ballot titles and summaries would be clear to voters and whether initiatives comply with a single-subject requirement.
The court unanimously signed off on the proposal that would automatically restore the voting rights of many felons after they have completed the terms of their sentences. The amendment would not apply to people convicted of murder and felony sexual offenses.
The issue of restoring felon rights has long been controversial in Florida, with critics of the state's process comparing it to post-Civil War Jim Crow policies designed to keep blacks from casting ballots. A system approved in 2011 by Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet required felons convicted of nonviolent crimes to wait a minimum of five years to have their rights restored, while others could wait up to 10 years before being eligible to apply.
Attorney General Pam Bondi and other supporters of the process have argued that the restoration of voting rights for felons should be earned and only after a sufficient waiting period.
But the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which is helping lead efforts to pass the ballot initiative next year, said the proposal would bring Florida in line with other states.
"Now the work of gathering signatures and mounting a successful campaign to change the Florida Constitution begins in earnest," Kirk Bailey, ACLU of Florida political director, said in a prepared statement Thursday. "We look forward to Florida voters being given a chance to bring our state's voting rules out of the 19th century and into the 21st."
The Supreme Court was more divided about whether the gambling-related initiative should move forward. The measure was approved in a 4-2 decision, with Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince and Charles Canady in the majority and justices Ricky Polston and R. Fred Lewis dissenting. Justice Alan Lawson, who joined the court at end of December, did not take part.
If the amendment is approved in November 2018, it would give voters the "exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling" in the state. It would require voter approval of casino-style games.
Polston, in a dissenting opinion joined by Lewis, argued the proposal is misleading and violates the single-subject requirement. He contended, in part, that the proposal would not fully inform voters about its possible effects on a constitutional amendment passed in 2004 that authorized slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Under that amendment, local voters also had to approve the slot machines.
"The initiative is placing voters in the position of deciding between a preference for controlling the expansion of full-fledged casino gambling and Florida's current legal gaming landscape," Polston wrote.
But the majority rejected arguments that it should block the measure from going on the ballot.
"The opponents primarily argue that the initiative should not be placed on the ballot because it is unclear whether, if passed, the amendment would apply retroactively and what effect, if any, the amendment would have on gambling that is currently legal in Florida --- including gambling that was previously authorized by general law rather than by citizens' initiative," the majority wrote. "However, as the sponsor points out, the opponents' arguments concern the ambiguous legal effect of the amendment's text rather than the clarity of the ballot title and summary."