No One Knows Why Florida's Ballot Measures Failed

Nov 14, 2012

There are a lot of theories about why this year's ballot measures didn't pass-- but they are just theories.
Credit Christine DiMattei /WLRN

In this past election, only three of the 11 proposed changes to the Florida Constitution on this year's ballot actually passed.

The ballot measures covered issues like tax cuts, the Florida Supreme Court, abortion and public funding of religious groups.

There are a lot of theories as to why this happened: a historically long ballot might have fatigued people by the time they got to the ballot measures, the amendments themselves were lengthy and confusing, lines were too long and polling places were chaotic, etc.

But there are also some loftier explanations floating around.

The Palm Beach Post reports that one lawmaker says the fact that these issues were handled through Constitutional amendments instead of regular lawmaking procedure was to blame.

Senate President Don Gaetz, who co-sponsored Amendment 4, which would have restricted rises in property taxes, said voters he spoke with were loath to change the constitution to accommodate fleeting issues. He said he intends to caution senators to use restraint in future proposals.

“If you have a proposed constitutional amendment, it’d better solve a constitutional problem, not an issue du jour,” said Gaetz, R-Niceville. “And there’d better be a plan to explain this constitutional amendment to the public instead of just putting something on the ballot and then leaving it to the vagaries of the lawyers to put the amendment into confusing and often convoluted language.”

Over the past 40 years, voters have signed off on 80 percent of the constitutional changes placed on the ballot by the legislature. This year, the approval rate was just 27 percent.

Critics say the legislature went too far with proposals reflecting a conservative ideology. Amendment 1 would have banned the government from requiring that Floridians purchase health insurance, an attempted broadside to President Barack Obama’s health care revisions. That was rendered moot by a U.S. Supreme Court decision this summer upholding the “individual mandate” portion of the federal health care law.

Policy watchers, however, say this is a pretty bold claim.

It's largely accepted that most of the electorate doesn't know how these measures even got on the ballot -- as a citizen petition or a legislative referral. And most voters aren't particularly opinionated about statutes versus constitutional law. 

What else could be going on?

Damien Filer, a progressive political activist who has worked on ballot measures in Florida for years, says this year surprised him, too.

He says that in the past Floridians have typically voted "yes" on amendments, even if they didn't understand the amendments.

Considering this trend, it would have been expected that these confusingly-worded and lengthy amendments would have passed, or at least garnered a simple majority.

But they didn't. In fact, most received well under 50 percent support.

Filer says that his guess is that people actually studied the amendments this year.

"Every piece of data I have seen, shows that people absolutely took their time to study these amendments," he says. "I really have to believe people were voting on these amendments based on their merits."

Historically, even if voters receive sample ballots or mailers telling them how to vote, few people are actually educated on the entire ballot before they get to the polls.

In short, there aren't a lot of indisputable answers as to what happened this year. I've looked for some exit polls that might provide some answers, but haven't found anything.

If any of you political junkies or experts out there have a theory or hunch, feel free to tweet me at @ashleylopezfl.