By BILL KACZOR, Associated Press
A citizen initiative to ban gay marriage will be on the November ballot, the only one of more than 50 active petition drives that qualified Friday at the deadline for signature verification.
Hometown Democracy, which would have required voter approval of local growth plan changes, was the only other proposal that appeared to have a chance before the 5 p.m. deadline, but it missed the mark.
Officials, though, ran out of time before they could process all signatures due to a deluge of petitions submitted in the past month and the diversion of county election workers to preparing for and carrying out Tuesday's presidential primary election.
It couldn't immediately be determined if there were enough unprocessed signatures to have placed Hometown Democracy on the ballot.
Sponsors of the single-gender marriage ban announced in December said they had obtained enough verified signatures. State officials then lowered the count by more than 20,000 signatures due to a glitch in the Division of Elections' electronic reporting system. Some signatures had been counted twice.
Florida4Marriage.org had to restart its all-volunteer petition campaign and collected 92,000 signatures in just 13 days, said the group's leader, Orlando lawyer John Stemberger.
"We contacted every national group that we knew about, we contacted every church leadership that we knew about," Stemberger said. "It was a blessing to the group because it better organized us. We're so very, very much ahead of where we would have been."
The proposal's backers are facing a well-organized opposition campaign called Florida Red and Blue. The group's chairman, Jon Kislak, said he expected the proposal to get on the ballot.
"We are already busy collecting the resources and building the campaign it will take to defeat this dangerous amendment," Kislak said. "We remain confident that voters will reject this amendment once they learn it can take away existing rights and benefits from millions of Floridians."
The opponents claim it would affect the rights of all unmarried couples regardless of gender.
Each proposed state constitutional amendment required 611,009 signatures. That's 8 percent of Florida voters who cast ballots in the last presidential election. The 8 percent criteria also had to be met in at least 13 of Florida's 25 congressional districts.
The same-sex marriage ban was certified with 649,346 signatures - 38,337 more than the minimum. Hometown Democracy, which was opposed by developers, businesses and many local officials, failed by 65,182 signatures.
Hometown Democracy's backers said they will continue their drive and seek certification for the 2010 ballot possibly within the next couple months. Petitions are good for four years. Hometown Democracy submitted nearly 800,000 signatures, said the group's leader, Palm Beach lawyer Lesley Blackner.
Secretary of State Kurt Browning rejected a request by the Florida Chapter of the Sierra Club, which supports Hometown Democracy, to delay ballot certification until all signatures submitted before Friday's deadline are checked and counted if they are valid.
"The Florida Constitution requires ballot placement to occur on Feb. 1, and the Division of Elections has a rule that requires the state to base placement on the total number of signatures received by the state before 5 p.m.," said Browning spokesman Sterling Ivey.
In a request to Browning and Gov. Charlie Crist, Sierra officials said a delay would be justified because of the primary, which moved up this year from March, as well as problems in the state's electronic counting system and the verification process in some counties.
Because of the reporting problems, Browning had shut down the electronic system and stopped posting daily updates on division's Web site. The last official posting on Jan. 14 showed the gay marriage amendment was 21,989 signatures short. Hometown Democracy needed 109,479 more signatures. The next closest proposal as of Jan. 14 had less than half of the necessary signatures.
Some of Hometown Democracy's opponents proposed an alternate growth management initiative, but Floridians for Smarter Growth acknowledged before the deadline that it didn't have enough signatures. Its petitions, though, contributed to the glut that kept Hometown Democracy off the ballot.
Michael Caputo of Floridians for Smarter Growth said its backers, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, have not yet decided whether to seek certification for the 2010 ballot.
Caputo said the campaign he's managing was designed to keep Hometown Democracy off the ballot this year so opponents would have more time to organize for 2010.
Blackner said the law gives county supervisors of elections too much discretion and some gave signature verification a low priority. She also blamed the Legislature's decision to move Florida's presidential primary from March to January.
"It's 2000 all over again," Blackner said, referring the Florida's presidential recount debacle that year. "The elections process in Florida is run like a banana republic."
Another anti-Hometown Democracy group called Save Our Constitution tried to get voters to revoke their signatures under a recently passed law. It submitted 18,731 valid revocations.
"This is the third time Lesley Blackner and her antigrowth fanatics have failed to deliver on this bad amendment, which attempts to turn back the clock on Florida's growth and prosperity," said Barney Bishop, chief executive of Associated Industries of Florida and co-chairman of Save Our Constitution.