A network of out-of-state political consultants, secret donors and activists with close ties to President Trump is behind an effort to change the Florida constitution to explicitly state that only citizens may vote in elections, a measure that would amplify the issue of immigration in the 2020 battleground state.
In recent months, organizers said they have collected nearly twice the signatures needed to qualify for the ballot next year — and more than any other ballot initiative in Florida state history, they said.
The exact legal effect the amendment would have remains unclear. While federal law explicitly bars noncitizen voting, the language in the Florida constitution — like that of many states — says that “every” citizen who is 18 may vote. The proposed amendment would change the language to say “only” a citizen may vote.
Supporters of the amendment said the current phrasing is vague and leaves the door open to laws allowing noncitizens to cast ballots in local elections, now permitted in about a dozen jurisdictions around the country. No such proposals have surfaced in Florida.
A campaign focused on the risk of noncitizen voting could appeal to conservatives and alarm immigrants — a possible boost for Trump, who has made immigration enforcement a centerpiece of his reelection bid, political analysts said.
“This is clearly a very mobilizing issue in Florida,” said Susan MacManus, a politics professor emeritus with the University of South Florida.
“Clearly, the purpose is not only making a statement about immigration but to turn out the vote of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters,” she added.
Organizers denied that the effort is intended to drive up conservative turnout but acknowledged the measure could work to Trump’s benefit by forcing Democratic candidates to say whether they support noncitizen voting in local elections.
The initiative is being publicly championed by a West Palm Beach couple who are members of the president’s private club and have been associated with Trump’s political operation.
But an examination of the ballot measure campaign found it is being driven by a veteran GOP political consultant based in Arizona who said he has plans to expand the effort to at least a dozen other states in time for the 2020 elections — many of which are key Senate battlegrounds.
The financiers of the Florida ballot measure, who public records show have contributed more than $4.7 million through a recently formed nonprofit organization, are a mystery.
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, said the proposed amendment is in line with the president’s views.
“President Trump firmly believes that only American citizens should be able to vote in our elections,” Murtaugh said. “This amendment effort is certainly compatible with that position.”
A spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has not endorsed the ballot measure, said noncitizen voting is already illegal in Florida.
The murkiness surrounding the financing of the amendment has caused concern among some Republican state lawmakers, who passed legislation earlier this year signed by DeSantis that is aimed at curtailing ballot initiatives driven by secret or out-of-state backers.
“There’s nothing that would stop a foreign political foe from transferring money into one of these groups,” said James Grant, a Republican member of the Florida House of Representatives who pushed the law to limit ballot initiatives. “There are no reporting requirements that could track whether it is actually being funded by a political foe. That should scare the hell out of all of us.”
John Loudon, a former state lawmaker from Missouri and the chairman of Florida Citizen Voters, the Florida-based political committee sponsoring the proposed amendment, said the group has disclosed all that is required under the law. He said there is no foreign money behind the effort.
Updating the constitutional language is necessary to challenge any future local laws that allow noncitizens to cast ballots, he said. “It needs to be in the constitution,” Loudon said. “You have to be a citizen to vote.”
Noncitizens can cast ballots in local elections in about 10 Maryland towns or cities, and in local school elections in San Francisco and Chicago. Some Massachusetts towns also have passed resolutions supporting such laws. Supporters say immigrant voting, which was permitted in much of the United States through the 19th century, helps promote civic participation among all residents.
Loudon also chairs Citizen Voters Inc., a nonprofit organization promoting the issue across the country, and is serving as the public face of the effort along with his wife, Gina.
In a video on the group’s website, Gina Loudon says that the home states of Democratic presidential candidates such as Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have “pursued allowing noncitizens to legally vote.”
She said that the language of many state constitutions lays out only who can vote — not who cannot. “The citizen voters amendment fixes this with just a three-word change,” she said.
Gina Loudon did not respond to requests for comment.
The couple, who bought a house in South Florida in 2017, are members of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club. “Lovely to see @realDonaldTrump relaxed and happy,” Gina Loudon wrote in a tweet last year along with a photo she posted of herself, her husband and the president at the club.
John Loudon served briefly in 2017 as an adviser to America First Policies, a nonprofit advocacy group that promotes Trump’s agenda. Gina Loudon, a radio talk-show host known as Dr. Gina, is a member of the Trump campaign’s media advisory board, a group of about 30 surrogates, according to the campaign.
Last year, she published a book that described Trump as “the most sound-minded person to ever occupy the White House.”
Trump tweeted praise of the book, saying, “Gina is Great!” He also invited her aboard Air Force One; a picture of the two of them on the plane during a trip to Missouri in November appears in her Instagram feed.
John Loudon said he became involved with the noncitizen voting measure after he was approached by Tim Mooney, a friend and political strategist based in Arizona.
Mooney, who has deep ties in the Republican Party, has spearheaded dozens of ballot initiatives around the country, including measures to ban same-sex marriage, require balanced budgets and promote school choice.
He has been working on the noncitizen voting issue since at least 2017, when associates said he shared results of a national poll showing that the concept resonated with many voters.
In an email to The Washington Post, Mooney said he is planning a nationwide campaign, with work underway to change state constitutions or laws in the following states: Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio and West Virginia.
Mooney cited the number of local jurisdictions that are considering expanding voting rights to noncitizens, such as Portland, Maine.
“Leftist activists have termed noncitizen voting ‘the newest civil right,’ ” he said, adding, “How is this possible? Citizen Voters wants every state to pass the Citizen Voters Amendment.”
Paul Jacob, a Virginia-based strategist who worked on a citizen-only voting amendment in North Dakota last year and plans to promote a similar effort in Maine, said the measures could put Democrats in a political box.
He noted that if Harris, a former San Francisco prosecutor, becomes the party’s presidential nominee next year, she could be forced to defend her hometown’s policy of allowing noncitizens to vote. That position could push away independent and Republican-leaning voters, he said.
It’s a scenario that “has been discussed,” said Jacob, who has coordinated his efforts with Mooney, “and I think it will be discussed some more.”
So far, the project is succeeding. North Dakota voters overwhelmingly approved a citizen-only voting amendment last year. Lawmakers in Alabama voted unanimously this year to place the question on the 2020 ballot.
And in Florida, the effort has collected more than 1.5 million signatures, Mooney and Loudon said — more than enough to qualify for the 2020 ballot and prompting coordinators to close down the signature drive earlier this month.
As of Friday, the Florida Department of State had validated more than 166,000 signatures submitted by the Citizen Voters campaign. State and local election officials are still processing forms turned in by the drive. Organizers have until Feb. 1 to qualify for the 2020 ballot. The language of the measure must also be approved by the Florida Supreme Court before it goes to voters.
MacManus, the politics professor, said she believes the measure will generate ample support in 2020, noting that she saw scores of signature collectors roaming the crowds at Trump’s reelection kickoff rally in Orlando last month seeking signatures for the amendment.
“Every person at that rally pretty much had to say, ‘I’ve already signed it. I’ve already signed it. I’ve already signed it.’ ” she said. “I sat next to a group of people who said they’d had four different people approach them.”
But Steve Schale, a Florida-based Democratic consultant, said he is skeptical that the amendment will change the dynamic of the presidential contest in the state, noting that past ballot measures have not always driven voter turnout as predicted.
“Voters are smarter than we give them credit for sometimes,” Schale said.
The financial firepower behind the Florida initiative remains a mystery, because organizers channeled donations through Citizen Voters Inc., which is not required to disclose its contributors.
Between January and June, Citizen Voters Inc. gave $4.7 million to the political committee Florida Citizen Voters, public records show.
Both entities were formed last fall, according to public filings in Florida. John Loudon is listed as an officer on both, and Mooney is listed as a contact for the nonprofit in public filings.
Loudon and Mooney declined to identify where the nonprofit got the money.
So far, Florida Citizen Voters has spent $2.3 million, with $2 million of that going to a California company called Let the Voters Decide, which pays for workers to collect signatures, according to filings.
The political committee’s treasurer is Erika Alba, a well-connected lawyer in Jacksonville who previously worked for a DeSantis-aligned super PAC that supported his 2016 bid for U.S. Senate.
Alba is also a past chair of Associated Industries of Florida, according to the biography listed on her law firm’s website. AIF is a powerful business lobby that advocates on behalf of some of the state’s largest industries, including the energy sector, builders, hotels, restaurants and sugar cane.
The group’s president and chief executive, former GOP congressman Tom Feeney, declined to say whether AIF is supporting the ballot initiative.
DeSantis has said little publicly about the amendment. In a statement, his spokeswoman Helen Ferré said: “In Florida, only citizens can vote. This constitutional amendment would not change the current law.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that noncitizen voting was permitted in College Park, Md. While city officials initially announced the measure had passed in 2017, they subsequently discovered it did not have enough votes for approval.