This Election Will Prove If Florida Is Still Winnable For Democrats

This Election Will Prove If Florida Is Still Winnable For Democrats

Democratic campaign organizations stubbornly insist that Florida is their best Senate pickup opportunity in 2024 — less a booming declaration of confidence, more a reflection of the impossibly tough map. 

But on Monday, the Florida Supreme Court tossed a grenade into the campaign cycle, perhaps scuttling, at least for a year, the politics of a state that many on the left have increasingly written off as too red and getting redder. The court both allowed a constitutional amendment to enshrine abortion rights onto the ballot in November, and upheld a 15-week ban, which will soon give way to a six-week one.

Testing Dobbs’ Juice

The Biden campaign seized on the court’s abortion-related decisions, declaring the state “winnable” on both the Senate and presidential level in a memo distributed to news outlets. 

For the Biden campaign and Senate Democrats, it’s good strategy to act like they think the state is in reach whether or not they actually do; at the very least, they can hope to unnerve Donald Trump and Republicans enough that they feel compelled to burn money there. 

But the Democratic optimists will retort that abortion politics have upended our electoral dynamics since Dobbs, that every single time abortion has been on the ballot since the ruling, it’s won — even in states as red as Kansas and Kentucky. 

Daniel Smith, a voting rights expert at the University of Florida who has researched the effect of other ballot initiatives on election turnout, has found that an initiative in a presidential cycle typically results in a turnout boost of about one percent. Trump won Florida in 2016 by 1.2 percent, and in 2020 by 3.4. 

The turnout bump is “not as great during presidential elections,” Smith told TPM, comparing it to the ballot initiative effect during midterms, when fewer people vote to begin with. “But in this cycle, enthusiasm is not as high as it was in past elections — measures such as these could certainly drive people to the polls who might otherwise sit it out.” 

The Biden campaign centered its Florida pitch on reproductive freedom, tracking with lessons Democrats have learned from other cycles featuring ballot amendments. Florida in particular has a rich history of voting for progressive ballot measures — a minimum wage hike, re-enfranchising people who served out felony sentences — while in the same breath voting for Republican candidates opposed to those things. 

For the left, Michigan and its abortion rights amendment is the anecdote to that troubling pattern. 

“Look at Michigan in 2022: The governor, secretary of state and attorney general ran on both voting rights and reproductive freedom — that was hugely significant,” Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, told TPM.

The implementation of the six-week ban will also likely galvanize voters by moving the threat from the theoretical to the actual. Florida is the second largest abortion provider in the country, according to activists in the state, and was long the only haven in the abortion desert of the southeast. 

‘Designed To Be High’

Yet Florida comes with an extra gauntlet that no other state has had to face: while ballot referenda usually require just a simple majority, Florida has a 60 percent threshold for an initiative to pass. 

That would have been enough to doom the abortion rights proposals in Michigan in 2022 and Ohio in 2023, both of which passed with about 57 percent (ironically enough, Florida’s 60 percent threshold, pushed in part due to opposition from lawmakers and then-Gov. Jeb Bush to a voter-passed initiative to build high-speed rail in the state, passed with 58 percent of the vote).  

Other states have attempted, unsuccessfully, to similarly limit voter power by requiring a supermajority to amend their constitutions. Ohio Republicans tried (and failed) to lift the threshold in a special election cobbled together specifically to thwart the abortion amendment. 

It’s a steep climb. The organizers behind the Florida initiative will have to surpass the work done by abortion advocates in other purple-to-red states. “It’s not only 60 percent, but 60 percent in the third largest state in the country,” said Andrea Mercado, executive director of Florida Rising and one of the organizers behind the ballot initiative.

But Florida organizers have proven themselves adept at building expansive coalitions: The felon re-enfranchisement amendment in 2018 passed with 65 percent and the 2020 minimum wage hike passed with just under 61.

And abortion isn’t your grandmother’s ballot amendment. 

“A 60 percent threshold is high, it’s designed to be high,” Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School and former White House senior policy advisor for democracy and voting rights, told TPM. “But 60 percent is not unachievable for an issue with as much public salience as this one.” 

Guarding Against Republican Interference 

Perhaps the most fundamental question about the abortion amendment is whether state Republicans will let it go into effect, even if it does surpass those imposing hurdles. 

“Never underestimate what the Florida legislature will do when it comes to implementation, even of constitutional amendments,” Smith said. “We’ve seen, time and time again, this effort to thwart the supermajority will of the people.”

After the felon re-enfranchisement amendment passed with a broad mandate, Republican lawmakers quickly passed a law requiring that the reentering civilians pay off a whole host of fines and fees first (while not bothering to create any database for people to find out how much they might owe), and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) activated “election police” to hunt down those who had registered while wrongly believing they were qualified to do so. DeSantis and other Florida leaders are now being sued for their attempts to thwart the amendment.

Mercado, who also worked on the felony voting amendment, said that the organizers took pains this time to make the amendment as ironclad as possible. 

“It was important for this initiative to have literally dozens of lawyers write the strongest possible language to prevent their ability to undermine the initiative once it passes,” she said. “That’s why the language was crafted the way that it was — we really anticipated every possible thing they could do to undermine the language, then constructed it accordingly.” 

Anti-abortion foes will likely pursue litigation, as well as legislation, to stymy the amendment if it passes. 

“If this were to become part of the Constitution, it will be litigated forever,” Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz said offhand during a hearing on the proposal text. 

Organizers are ready for that too. 

“We know there will be legal attacks and legal strategies — our lawyers are prepared for that,” Mercado said. “We can’t let knowing they will attack us or sue us or legislate stop us from protecting abortion access in the third largest state in the country.”

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