Elections

‘Dump’ of thousands of petitions has election supervisors scrambling, others suspicious

John Loudon speaks in Miami on July 17, 2019, to deliver the final signatures for Florida Citizen Voters, which announced it has collected 1.5 million signatures. With him is Gabriel Alfonzo, a naturalized citizen from Venezuela, and Jose Montas, a naturalized citizen from Dominican Republic.
John Loudon speaks in Miami on July 17, 2019, to deliver the final signatures for Florida Citizen Voters, which announced it has collected 1.5 million signatures. With him is Gabriel Alfonzo, a naturalized citizen from Venezuela, and Jose Montas, a naturalized citizen from Dominican Republic. Courtesy of John Loudon, Florida Citizen Voters

Fueled by millions of dollars from unknown sources, an obscure petition gathering effort declared victory this week and announced that a new constitutional amendment to require only citizens to vote in Florida — something that’s already required by law — has more than twice the number of signatures needed to get on the 2020 election ballot.

“Over 1,300,000 petition signatures have been collected to ensure Citizen Voters Amendment will appear on the 2020 ballot,’’ the organization said on its website.

The feat was fast, since the group just formed nine months ago and raised and spent $2.4 million, but its confidence may be a bit premature. The Florida Citizen Voters proposal still needs to pass a Florida Supreme Court review in which the court must decide if it is misleading to ask voters to make something illegal if it’s already illegal.

But just as a new law took effect July 7, declaring that petition signatures are invalid if they are not certified within 30 days, Citizen Voters unloaded hundreds of thousands of petitions to county election offices and ensured one thing: Election officials are scrambling to verify them by the deadline.

They’re calling it the “big dump” — and some are asking if it was intentional, especially organizers of an amendment to deregulate the utility industry who suspect this is a tactic intended to undermine their effort.

“It’s costing around $120,000 in extra costs for us to bring in 14 temps and to pay our full-time staff overtime to make sure we get them done under the new 30-day deadline,’’ said Bill Cowles, Orange County supervisor of elections.

Florida law requires that for a citizens’ initiative to be on the ballot, it must collect 766,200 signatures, including a specified amount from every congressional district. But under the new law, any petition gathering group that holds onto a signature for more than 30 days can face steep penalties, including fines of up to $1,000 for “willfully” not meeting deadline and the threat of getting sued by the Florida Attorney General’s office.

Petition gatherers pay an hourly fee to reimburse some of the election officials’ costs, but several election officials said it does not cover all their expenses.

Lots of work to do

In Osceola County, which has a population of around 350,000, Elections Supervisor Mary Jane Arrington said the county received a single delivery of 25,000 individually signed petitions from the Citizen Voters campaign, forcing its modest staff of 16 to work long hours and weekends to verify the signature of each registered voters in the time allotted.

“They made a big dump, as we call it, right before the new deadline,” Arrington said. “With a county of our size, we worked overtime this past weekend and we will be working overtime this next weekend to get them done in the 30 days.”

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John Loudon, director of the Citizen Voters campaign, said that after the new law took effect, his organization “tried to deliver as many petitions as possible days before the deadline” and “will now deliver the remaining petitions to the various counties as quickly as possible.”

In Lee County, more than 35,000 petitions came from the Citizen Voters campaign in a single shipment, which filing officer Cheryl Futch said is an anomaly.

“Most of my sponsors send them to me a couple thousand at a time,” she said. “We have to adjust our budget to provide for that. We’re just not used to getting this amount at once.”

In larger counties, the influx is more easily absorbed. Broward County Supervisor of Elections Pete Antonacci hired seven part-time employees to help with the 128,000 Citizen Voters petitions it received. In Pinellas County, election officials there have hired 14 additional staff to handle the Citizen Voters petitions, and Hillsborough County is ramping up with temporary workers to verify 100,000 Citizen Voters signatures.

“We just have such a flexible staff that we’re able to accommodate this,’’ said Dustin Chase, spokesperson for Pinellas County’s supervisor of elections. “We’re paying close attention to this, and we’re managing the process.”

For Arrington, the Citizens petition is “redundant” and a “drain” on taxpayers’ resources.

“You already have to be a citizen to register to vote,” she said. “It’s hurting my budget, and I haven’t planned for overtime in an off year.”

The amendment would replace one word in the Florida Constitution with two new ones. Right now, only citizens can vote but the current wording states “every citizen” can vote. The proposed wording says “only a citizen” can vote.

Is it all about energy choice?

Alex Patton, chairman of another ballot initiative — a Texas-style energy choice petition that proposes to deregulate Florida’s monopolized utility system — said he believes the Citizen Voters proposal is not only redundant, it is a tactic employed by a shadowy campaign run by the utility giants to sabotage his initiative.

“I think their initial plan was to clog the supervisor of elections offices as our initiative got close to being at the end,’’ he said. “But HB 5 [the new law], with its 30-day countdown, messed with their plan and they were forced to dump everything.”

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He is suspicious because of the tactics used by monopoly utilities in 2016 when they proposed an initiative aimed at confusing voters and undercutting a solar-industry backed initiative to encourage rooftop solar expansion.

The rival amendments led to a bidding war for petition gatherers and, according to court records, when the price per signature reached $5.25 in December 2015, the pro-solar group was forced to call it quits and pull its amendment. The utilities then spent more than $20 million on their campaign to frustrate the expansion of consumer-owned rooftop solar in Florida. Voters rejected it.

“We have seen and we have observed and we have been told that this is all connected to obstructing our path to the ballot,’’ said Patton, chair of Citizens for Energy Choices. “There’s only one group with the means and the motive to do that. And that’s the monopoly utilities. I blame the monopoly utilities.”

Neither Florida Power and Light, Tampa Electric Company nor Duke Energy responded to repeated requests for comment made through multiple emails, texts and phone calls over two days.

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Loudon, a former Missouri state lawmaker who lives in Palm Beach County, denied that he is working with any other organization. “Florida Citizen Voters is the only political effort we are working on in the state of Florida,’’ he said, and is ready to move to other states.

“Colorado is next on our target list,’’ Loudon said.

But he acknowledged that all his money has come from a single group, Florida-based Citizen Voters Inc., also run by Loudon. When the Herald/Times asked him to disclose who funds the group, he refused.

“Citizen Voters and Florida Citizen Voters complies to every requirement for disclosure,’’ he said.

Citizen Voters Inc. registered as a nonprofit in 2018 but skirted IRS disclosure laws by not collecting money until 2019, and it does not have to disclose its sources of income until May 2020.

Campaign experts say that petition dumping is a tactic used in other states to block initiatives from getting on the ballot. If opponents can prevent a ballot measure from reaching the ballot through a successful blocking campaign, they can save a considerable amount of money that they would otherwise have to spend to persuade voters to vote no during a general election.

In Colorado, a blocking campaign popped up in response to two ballot initiatives that had to do with regulating oil and gas activity and creating mandatory 2,500-foot setbacks between certain energy development like fracking and houses, schools and water sources.

Professional signature gatherers

One key player behind blocking campaigns and petitions is a professional signature gatherer from California named Mark Jacoby. Jacoby runs a Facebook network of 1,500 professional signature gatherers for hire called Let the Voters Decide, and a Fullerton, California-based firm of the same name that was paid $2.2 million by Citizen Voters Inc. for “canvassing” services.

Before Let the Voters Decide, Jacoby operated a private consulting firm called YPM, or Young Political Majors. In 2004, he registered the company in Hillsborough County and worked to switch scores of college students’ voters registration from Democrat to Republican. Florida officials said that about 4,000 students may have been improperly registered at the University of Florida, Florida A&M University and Florida State University, the St. Petersburg Times reported then.

The Tampa elections office also got calls from University of South Florida students who complained that canvassers deceived them.

Jacoby was arrested in 2008, accused of voter fraud, after dozens of voters in California told police that they were duped into registering as Republicans by people employed by Jacoby’s firm, the Los Angeles Times reported then.

Dan Fessler, a professional petition gatherer, worked on the Colorado campaign alongside Jacoby, his former friend and longtime business associate. He said Florida Citizens Voters, which paid Jacoby $2.2 million in-kind “contributions,” is running the same playbook.

“The Citizens [Citizen Voters] petition was never intended as a normal petition,” Fessler said. “It was 100 percent conceived for the sole purpose of making sure that the energy petition fails.”

Patton has run into other issues with the Citizen Voters campaign, like suddenly losing contracts with petition gathering firms because of “conflicts of interest” or losing staff to the Citizen Voters initiative, which offered more money per signature than he could pay.

He calls it “anti-competitive” behavior, and says there’s only one group with the motive and means to get behind the effort.

“I can’t legally prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt,” he said. “I blame the monopoly utilities.”

Both Citizen Voters Inc. and Florida Citizen Voters are run by Loudon and were established by Erika Alba, the Jacksonville-based director of public affairs for Foley and Lardner, a Broward County-based law firm.

Alba is also the general counsel for Associated Industries of Florida, the business-backed lobbying group that does not disclose its top donors but has been known to lobby and campaign on behalf of the state’s utility industry among other top industries.

Alba played an active role in the 2018 election, serving as the head of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Super PAC, Fund for Florida’s Future.

She also formed two political committees whose source of funds are harder to trace because they, like Citizen Voters Inc., are not-for-profits and are shielded by federal and state dark money laws: Florida Seniors First financed almost $450,000 in mailers in August 2018. Count My Vote raised and spent $1.2 million between September and December 2018, including more than $550,000 in “printing services” from Jacoby’s “Let the Voters Decide” organization in California.

Loudon wrote an opinion piece for the South Florida Sun Sentinel, which appeared Wednesday. In it he defends his petition by alleging nationwide efforts to grant voting rights to non-citizens.

There is no such effort underway in Florida.

In an email Wednesday, Loudon clarified that his worry is not that non-citizens are voting illegally, but that the “extreme left” is advocating for the illegal act.

“They’re calling non-citizen voting ‘the newest civil right,’ ” he wrote. “We want to proactively ensure elections in every state in the United States are preserved for committed citizens of the United States.”

Cowles, the Orange County supervisor of elections, said he sees an increasing use of petitions and citizen initiatives as political tactics, and he believes there is a need for reform.

“Maybe we should have our elections with these initiatives and amendments in November in the off year and maybe we should do it by mail,’’ he said. “How many of these are on the ballot as campaign tools? If you move them off the ballot, then voters would only see candidates in the even years.”

Mary Ellen Klas, who reported from Tallahassee, can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas. Samantha Gross, who reported from Miami, can be reached at sgross@miamiherald.com and @SamanthaJGross.
Mary Ellen Klas is the capital bureau chief for the Miami Herald, where she covers government and politics and focuses on investigative and accountability reporting. In 2018-19, Mary Ellen was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and was named the 2019 Murrey Marder Nieman Fellow in Watchdog Journalism. In 2018, she won the Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. The Herald’s statehouse bureau merged with the Tampa Bay Times in November 2008 and is now a four-reporter operation.
Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.
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