Supporters of a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at ensuring abortion rights in Florida have submitted enough valid petition signatures to get on the November ballot, a key step in what could become the state’s biggest political battle this year.
The Florida Division of Elections website Friday morning showed that 910,946 valid signatures had been tallied for the proposal, which is sponsored by the political committee Floridians Protecting Freedom. That topped a requirement of submitting 891,523 signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Flagler County alone submitted 4,800 petitions, with probably more in the pipeline, says Janet Sullivan, who chairs Flagler County Democrats, and who led the drive locally. “As the Sponsor has to pay for each petition to be reviewed by the various SOEs in the state, they may decide to not spend any more money on the reviews, since the statewide goal has already been met,” Sullivan said.
The Flagler Supervisor of Elections’ official tally as of Dec. 28 shows that 4,789 petitions were submitted and processed, and 1,246 invalidated, netting a total of 3,543 valid petitions–at a cost of 50 cents per petition.
“I am a Democrat, but that’s not why I volunteered to get involved,” Sullivan said. “A good college friend almost died in 1971 after she had a ‘back alley’ abortion. We cared for her in our dorm the best we could. A musician-friend I knew in the early 70s before Roe v. Wade was forced to carry her late-stage stillborn fetus until she went into natural labor. I will never forget these women and their horrific experiences. I vowed to work for a woman’s right to a safe abortion, and this initiative does that.”
Floridians Protecting Freedom also met a requirement to meet signature thresholds in at least half of the state’s 28 congressional districts. Unofficial totals on the Division of Elections website showed that the committee exceeded the thresholds in 17 of the 28 districts.
Flagler County is part of the 6th congressional district–with Lake, Marion, Putnam, St. Johns and Volusia counties. The district as a whole submitted 32,411 signatures so far, but needed 34,389 for the district to meet the threshold. District 7, which also includes a portion of Volusia voters, exceeded the threshold–as did, for example, Districts 2 and 3 in the Panhandle, which include some of the state’s more conservative counties, but also Leon County in the Second, a more liberal enclave.
“Flagler volunteers worked hard at public events this past summer and fall to collect signed petitions,” Sullivan said. “They didn’t know anything about who they were approaching for a signature, and to the best of my knowledge, no voter turned down the opportunity to sign a petition. Flagler voters of all parties, genders, and ages”–Sullivan said the range was from 18 to 99–“submitted a signed petition.”
Now, focus will shift to the Florida Supreme Court, which has to sign off on the wording of proposed ballot initiatives. The court has scheduled a Feb. 7 hearing on the abortion initiative, which Attorney General Ashley Moody and other opponents are trying to keep off the ballot.
“Make no mistake: we will put abortion on the ballot in 2024 and take back the rights that have been stolen,” Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Davie, said Friday in a post on the social-media site X.
But Moody and the other opponents are urging the Supreme Court to block the measure, contending it would be misleading to voters — an argument that initiative supporters dispute.
The Supreme Court will review the proposed ballot summary and title, the wording that voters see when they go to the polls. The proposed ballot summary says, in part: “No law shall prohibit, penalize, delay, or restrict abortion before viability or when necessary to protect the patient’s health, as determined by the patient’s healthcare provider.”
Moody and other opponents have raised a series of objections, including contending that the word “viability” can have multiple meanings.
Floridians Protecting Freedom announced the initiative in May after the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis approved a law that could prevent abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. The six-week limit is contingent on the outcome of a legal battle about a 15-week abortion limit that DeSantis and lawmakers passed in 2022. The 15-week case also is pending at the Florida Supreme Court.
The proposed constitutional amendment has come amid the backdrop of ballot fights in other states after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022 overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion-rights decision. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling left abortion decisions to states.
“The supporters are not just women, not just young women, and not just Democrats,” Sullivan said, calling herself “hopeful” that the entirely conservative court, stacked with DeSantis appointees, will sign off. “If this initiative gets onto the ballot, it likely will have overwhelming support from all Florida voters to become an amendment to the Florida Constitution.”
If the Florida Supreme Court signs off on the wording, the Floridians Protecting Freedom initiative is almost certain to spur a fierce — and expensive — political battle. The six-week limit approved this spring by lawmakers and DeSantis would largely halt abortions in Florida, where a reported 72,087 abortions were performed during the first 11 months of 2023, according to state Agency for Health Care Administration data.
The petition-gathering process is complicated and costly, and Floridians for Protecting Freedom faced a Feb. 1 deadline for meeting the requirements. It had raised $8.91 million for the initiative as of Sept. 30, while spending $8.79 million as it worked to collect signatures. It will have to file an updated finance report by a Wednesday deadline.
The signature totals posted Friday morning on the Division of Elections website showed that the largest number of valid signatures, 54,277, had been collected in Congressional District 14 in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Meanwhile, 45,673 had been collected in Congressional District 10 in Orange County, and 45,268 had been collected in Congressional District 21 in Martin, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties.
–Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida, and FlaglerLive