Aug 16, 2022 - Politics

Florida law restricts how cities inform voters of ballot issues

Illustration of I Voted stickers, piled on top of one another.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Miami Beach voters facing complex referendums in next week's election won't be able to rely on their city government for help understanding the ballot questions.

Driving the news: A new Florida law restricts how local governments can inform their voters about the issues in upcoming elections.

  • House Bill 921, which took effect July 1, includes a provision that prohibits local cities from spending public funds to send communications to voters about upcoming referendums.

The city of Miami Beach, which for years has mailed out multilingual voter guides explaining referendums to residents, did not publish one for the Aug. 23 election and won't send any going forward.

  • Instead, due to the law, the city only sent voters a list of the six ballot questions — with no explanation of the issues — in a monthly magazine mailed to residents.

Yes, but: City attorney Rafael Paz said for the November election, the city will post explanations for each of the referendums on its website.

What they're saying: Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber tells Axios that the law will make voters less informed and give special-interest groups more control over messaging during election cycles.

  • "Limiting the ability to inform voters on what they're going to review is really just wrong," he said.

Miami Beach resident Jo Manning said she relies on the city's mailed voter guides to help her understand wonky policy issues.

  • But this year she will have to lean on resident-advocacy groups like Miami Beach United for their opinions on the ballot questions. "I've got to do a lot of research, and luckily for me, I speak English and I know the sources," Manning says.

Leaders of the small town of Golden Beach, on the other hand, didn't let the new law stop them.

  • The town, which also has a local election this month, published a detailed explanation of a proposed general obligation bond on the ballot in the July edition of its resident magazine.

Town manager Alexander Diaz tells Axios that the article doesn't violate the law because the town remained neutral and simply informed voters about the ballot question.

  • "We should be allowed to post and advertise factual, non-biased information. The public has a right to know what is being asked of them," Diaz writes in an email.

Of note: A spokesperson for the city of Miami said the new law will not affect its communications efforts because it only publishes notices of the referendums online.

Between the lines: The conflicting text of the law appears open to interpretation.

  • Miami Beach referenced a provision stating that local governments cannot fund "a political advertisement or any other communication sent to electors" regarding an issue or referendum.
  • But another line says the law does not preclude a government from "posting factual information on a government website or in printed materials."
  • Paz said the new law is "frustrating because it provides no clear guidance for public administrators seeking to implement the new requirements."

Miami elections attorney JC Planas tells Axios that the law contains contradictory language but he believes its true intention was to prevent governments from funding issue-driven advertisements.

  • "I think that there's a way to do a proper voter guide without it violating this," he said. "But I can understand [Miami Beach] not wanting to bring on extra trouble."

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