Another week, another reality-challenged column from the Orlando Sentinel’s Scott Maxwell, a man for whom facts are optional and cynicism passes for wisdom. In his latest foray into the swamp of Florida politics, Maxwell takes a swing at Republican efforts to inject some stability into the state constitution by making it harder to change on a whim. It’s an idea that Maxwell compares to “banning everyone from voting” while claiming Florida’s GOP lawmakers are elitist authoritarians on par with the dictator of a third-world banana republic.
That’s part of the problem with keyboard warriors like Maxwell, whose half-baked thoughts get wide distribution thanks to the Sentinel, but are rarely tethered to truth. A few weeks back, for example, he waded into the state’s property insurance crisis and solved it by typing billions of magic dollars into existence and wondering why Republicans couldn’t do the same thing with real money.
This time around, he’s going after evil Republicans for daring to suggest that, just maybe, state constitutional amendments should only be adopted when there is obvious and broad consensus to do so.
Before slogging through Maxwell’s anti-Republican rhetoric, let’s first review what’s at stake. Every year, our state lawmakers make new laws, but they always have to fit those laws within Florida’s constitutional framework. The Florida Constitution is an important tool to keep government power in check. That is why it wisely includes language that allows it to be amended, by voters, when necessary. Right now, Florida’s constitution requires 60 percent of all votes cast to approve changes to the state’s foundational document. And yes, some Republicans think the threshold should be higher.
But where Maxwell sees a GOP plot to snatch democracy right out of voters’ hands, I see New Hampshire.
Maybe Googling it was too difficult, or just didn’t fit within Maxwell’s make-believe worldview, but the “Live Free or Die” state, which knows a thing or two about preserving a democracy, has a state constitution that isn’t easily trifled with. New Hampshire requires voters to approve proposed amendments by a two-thirds majority vote, or 66.7% of all votes cast. And even getting an amendment onto their state ballot is hard, too. Changing the New Hampshire rulebook is more challenging than convincing a cat to swim. But for New Hampshirites, it’s not about sinking the ship of democracy; it’s about making sure everyone’s on board with an idea before they alter the course of the ship. This isn’t New Hampshire being a backwards state, to the contrary, they are deliberative, ensuring that any constitutional change isn’t just a fleeting fancy but a well-thought-out, collective decision.
Maxwell would do well to note that New Hampshire only barely resembles the authoritarian regime of North Korea.
He also seems to think that Republicans regard Florida voters as silly toddlers stumbling toward an electrical outlet, but the truth is simpler and a tad humbling: it’s not just generic “voters” but literally everyone – we Republicans included – who are all a bit like ‘Florida Man’ when it comes to complex policy decisions – well-intentioned, but not always clued in. A 2021 Sachs Media survey elegantly underscores the point. The poll found that voter support for the phrase “ballot initiatives” was significantly higher than support for “constitutional amendments” even though they mean the same thing. And just as interesting as understanding how easily voters can be manipulated through the phrasing of a ballot question is the fact that voters are, by default, more hesitant about making alterations to the state’s constitution when they fully grasp what they are doing.
With those two points in mind, it’s important to note that Republican lawmakers (or Republican opinion column writers, for that matter) don’t think voters are uninformed; we know so. And, I can’t stress it enough, “voters” includes all of us – even Scott Maxwell and me too, when it comes to complex policy.
Keep in mind that the average IQ is 100, which carries with it profound implications. Collectively, the electorate as a whole is pretty doggone dumb. Everyone needs to remember that not only does “Florida Man” get to cast a ballot, but that he has a lot of brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, parents, step children, in-laws, and friends, all of voting age, too. And their decision at the ballot box might depend more on how the question is phrased than on the depths of their collective wisdom. Hint to Scott Maxwell: there is an entire industry of savvy political consultants with IQ’s far above 100 who make a very comfortable living in this industry. And they sell their expertise on how to get Florida Man and his social circle to pull the voting lever in a particular direction. When it comes to complex ballot questions, Republicans are smart enough to know just how dumb all of us can be.
Still not convinced when it comes to so-called “collective wisdom” that none of us are quite as dumb as all of us? Allow me to take you back in time, about twenty years ago, when Florida’s alleged collective wisdom resulted in “all of us” getting emotionally wrapped up in an issue that had no business going before the electorate as a whole: a constitutional proposal to protect pregnant pigs from being confined in small cages.
What happened next? The few farmers actually impacted by the new amendment, decided the pig farming business was suddenly too expensive. They went out of business, and the pregnant pigs that we “smart” voters were trying to protect got slaughtered anyway.
The amendment stands as a textbook case on unintended consequences, and a solid argument for why we hold elections for state lawmakers in the first place. We send them to Tallahassee every year for one purpose: to dig into murky and complex public policy issues, hear from experts, consider various options, and make an informed decision with the will of their constituents – all of us – in mind.
New Hampshire and Florida aren’t the only states that get it, either. Other states also understand the importance of deliberative public policy. Hawaii, Minnesota, Tennessee and Wyoming, a virtual mix of red and blue states, all have a unique mechanism in place to protect their constitutions from the whims and passing fancies of a fickle and easily manipulated electorate. In those states, when tallying up constitutional amendment votes, abstentions are treated as “no” votes. The idea is that a person who couldn’t be bothered to research the issue and cast a vote is clearly not dissatisfied enough with the status quo. If you don’t vote, you’re effectively saying ‘no’ to change. It’s a unique way of ensuring that any alterations to the constitution only occur when the change truly reflects the will of the large swath of the electorate, not just those who show up on voting day.
Florida might do well to consider such a policy, too. But none of this is to say we shouldn’t have a mechanism for altering our constitution – we absolutely should. There may be times when an issue of such gravity arises that the will of the people needs to be enshrined in the state’s constitution. But in most cases, such as regulating pig farms, such matters are best left to state lawmakers. Scott Maxwell clearly doesn’t like the fact that, right now at least, those legislators happen to be Republicans.
But Republicans and Democrats alike should remember that power in a democracy can change hands quickly. Altering the rules to benefit one side or another may ultimately backfire. That’s why it’s best to have a hard-to-change constitution, to prevent the rules from being changed in the middle of the game.