Early voters wait to enter the Millhopper Branch Library in Gainesville, Fla., on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. On their ballots is a controversial amendment about citizenship and voting. (Emily Felts/Fresh Take Florida)

Ballot Measure To Limit Voting To ‘Only A Citizen’ Would Have No Real Effect In Florida

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A group is pushing to change the constitutions in Florida, Alabama and Colorado in next week’s elections to require that “only a citizen” can vote. The group says it’s a hedge against future political campaigns that might one day allow votes by non-citizens – even though that’s already prohibited by law in Florida.

The amendments in Florida and Alabama would have no meaningful effect on voting rights, although in Colorado it may override an existing law that allows 17-year-olds to vote.

The amendment proposed in all three states would change the language in the state constitutions to require that “only a citizen,” instead of “every citizen” of the U.S. can vote. 

“The proposed language is a xenophobic dog whistle to get more Republicans to turn out,” said one critic, Steve Simeonidis, chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. “It’s duplicative of what is already outlined in Florida statutes and completely unnecessary.”

It’s unclear exactly which political or corporate interests are behind the efforts. 

In Florida, the initiative is sponsored by Florida Citizen Voters, a political committee. A Florida-based non-profit, Citizen Voters Inc. of Ponte Vedra Beach, donated roughly $8.3 million to the political committee, all of it last year between January and July. 

The political committee, in turn, spent just over $2 million with Let the Voters Decide of Fullerton, California, described as a petition-circulating vendor working on behalf of the group’s efforts.

The chairman of Citizen Voters, John Loudon, said, the current wording of state constitutions is “a loophole that activists are exploiting in states across the nation that have the same language as Florida. By changing the language to ‘only a citizen’ we can guarantee that the precious franchise is reserved for committed citizens whether born or naturalized.”

Asked about the source of the effort’s money, Loudon said, “We strictly comply with all financial disclosure laws.” Nonprofits, such as Citizen Voters Inc., are not required under federal law to identify their donors. The nonprofit was established in 2018, according to Florida corporate records.

Citizen Voters said it collected more than 1.3 million petition signatures in Florida – nearly twice what it needed – but the Division of Elections counted only 927,908 as valid because of a new law that took effect in July. It declared petition signatures valid only if they are verified within 30 days. 

The Miami-Dade Democratic Party opposes the amendment because it said it implies to voters that non-citizens currently noncitizens can vote. They can not.

“A lot of readers might guess that maybe green card holders are allowed to vote or maybe undocumneted immigrants are allowed to vote when neither of those things are true,” Simeonidis said.

Laws in Florida and Alabama exclude non-citizens from voting. In at least 14 states, including Maryland and California, local governments may pass their own voter qualification laws to include non-citizens in local elections. No states allow non-citizens to vote next week. 

The Colorado Votes Act, signed into law in May 2019, allows citizens who are 17 years old and will be turning 18 by the November election, to vote in a party’s primary election in Colorado. This act was possible through the concept of home rule, which gives local governments the power to implement a charter that gives them the ability to customise local elections among other things. 

The citizenship amendment explicitly states that only citizens who are 18 and above can vote in elections, and it may have the ability to overturn the Colorado Votes Act. Currently, none of the home rule municipalities in Colorado have different voting requirements from the state, and the passage of the citizenship amendment aims to keep it this way. The citizenship amendment was introduced as an initiative by Colorado Citizen Voters, a branch of the Florida-based group. The amendment will need at least 55% of the vote to be passed in Colorado.

In 2016, voters in San Francisco approved a charter amendment that would allow non-citizen parents, legal guardians and legally recognized caregivers to vote in school board races. 

In 2017, the City Council in College Park, a suburb of Maryland, voted to allow undocumented immigrants, student visa holders, and residents with green cards to vote in local elections. This made College Park the largest U.S. city to allow non-citizens to participate in municipal elections.

The League of Women Voters of Florida opposes the amendment because it said it was unnecessary.

“We also are concerned about possible dark money behind this amendment,” said Patricia Brigham, the group’s president. “Anytime there is dark money involved, or a possible dark money group involved, their concerns about transparency go up. Why not be transparent about who you are and who is funding you?”

Loudon’s organization successfully passed a similar amendment in 2018 in North Dakota with 66% of the vote.

Read more of WUFT’s coverage of Florida Votes 2020

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This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at nmanaba@freshtakeflorida.com

About Nomfumo Manaba

Nomfumo is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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