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The Plight of the Florida Turkey

November 27th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

In 2018, 32,700 hunters bagged an estimated 20,300 Wild Florida Turkeys, but the annual harvest wasn’t always so bountiful.

The restoration of the Florida’s wild turkeys is one of the great conservation success stories, but new environmental stresses could be putting the population at risk once again.

Turkeys might not be the first animal that comes to mind when you think Florida wildlife, but they have a long rich history in the sunshine state.

“We have two subspecies and those are the Eastern and the Osceola Turkey. Something that’s really special about the Osceola Turkey is that it’s only found in the Florida Peninsula and nowhere else in the world,” said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Spokesperson Rebekah Nelson.

Florida hasn’t always been kind to its avian friend, their numbers were once estimated to be a quarter million, but 70 years ago only 26,000 remained because of overhunting.

“It was because they’re so tasty. There was a lot of hunting and it wasn’t sustainable,” said Julie Wraithmell, Executive Director of Audubon Florida.

What followed was a success story as the state embarked on a concerted restoration effort.

“With science-based management we’ve gotten back to a robust turkey population,” said Nelson.

But according to FWC reports, turkeys could soon face a new threat.

“Habitat fragmentation and habitat loss are definitely concerns,” said Nelson.

Climate change and urban sprawl stand to destroy 2.1 million acres of turkey territory by 2060.

“Certainly as our state urbanizes we will see changes to the distribution of those birds,” said Wraithmell.

For now, the birds are still safe to hunt.

The FWC has also developed a ten-year strategic plan for managing Florida’s wild turkeys, to ensure their population stays healthy for future generations to sample on their Thanksgiving plate.

It’s too late to sign up for a permit to hunt your own Thanksgiving turkey this year, but hunters still have until November 30th to get a permit for the Spring season.

They can be purchased at GoOutdoorsFlorida.com.

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Politics and Holiday Season Drive Uptick in Gun Sales

November 27th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida gun dealers began seeing an uptick in gun purchases, based on background check applications in June.

Thousands are expected to start the purchasing process this Friday.

Gun sales have lagged in Florida since 2016 set a record for over a million background checks.

The slowdown in growth held through the first six months of this year, but that changed about the same time an impeachment and proposed ban on assault weapons in Florida started getting traction.

“Any time you have uncertainty, you are going to have people that are going to want to go ahead and buy it now because if I buy it now, I can own it. Some people would even say it they pass a law they’d have to take it away from me,” said Pawn shop owner, Mark Folmar.

Black Friday could, and often is, the biggest day of the year for Florida gun dealers.

“Politics always is going to have a little bit to do with it, but it’s that time of the year. Its holiday season and hunting season. It’s a good time of the year for gun sales,” said Brandon Long with Kevin’s Guns and Sporting Goods in Tallahassee.

If history is any guide, 9,000 to 11,000 people will apply for background checks on Friday.

At Folmar’s, sales are driven by personal safety.

“The majority of gun buyers do not hunt, or that’s not their main purpose. They really like shooting,” said Folmar.

But across town at Kevins Guns, hunting is king, at least at this time of the year.

“People do like to buy them as gifts and you have hunting season right in the middle of it,” said Long.

On Wednesday, waiting for a background check to be processed took just minutes.

On Friday, it could be an hour or more.

All guns sold in Florida are subject to a three day waiting period unless the buyer holds a concealed carry permit.

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Two Minutes of ‘Silent Reflection’ Could Soon Start Off Florida School Days

November 26th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Students would be required to take between a one and two minute moment of silence to start off each school day if two state lawmakers get their way.

Many teachers already offer students the option, but the new legislation would make the reflection period mandatory.

With all the distractions in life it can be hard to find the time to center yourself, especially for students.

“Every now and then you need to pause,” said Pastor R. B. Holmes with Bethel Baptist Church in Tallahassee.

Holmes said a minute or two of reflection can go a long way.

“And try to seek God’s will and direction that would give a person a sense of calmness and a sense of confidence in these trying times that students are going through,” said Holmes.

Under current law, school boards can authorize teachers to offer one to two minutes of silent prayer or meditation at the start of the school day.

The new legislation would make it mandatory, but also remove the words prayer and meditation from the statue.

Andrea Messina with the Florida School Boards Association said because the new legislation would also prohibit teachers from telling students how to use their silent time it helps ensure the separation of church and state.

“It’s a moment of silence for each individual student to use as he or she chooses,” said Messina.

The legislation also directs teachers to encourage parents to discuss how to best use the period of silent reflection with their children.

And with the holiday season just around the corner, Pastor Holmes said maybe we could all use a little time for silent refection.

“One of the reasons why Abraham Lincoln signed the proclamation for Thanksgiving, he was saying for the country to pause, meditate, reflect,” said Holmes.

If the bill becomes law the silent reflection period would start during the 2020 school year.

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Holiday Sales Look Better Than Expected Florida Retailers Say

November 26th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

If you haven’t started your Christmas shopping yet, you are in the minority according to Florida retailers.

Scott Shalley, President of the Florida Retail Federation said more than one of every two Floridians have already started their Christmas Shopping, and it’s only going to get busier this weekend.

“Projects are that about 75 percent of shoppers will shop this weekend. You’ve got small business Saturday on Saturday after Black Friday and then leading into cyber Monday,” said Shalley.

Sales are expected to notch up about four percent over last year.

For retailer Geof Weldon who own the Shoe Box in Tallahassee, that’s welcome news as brick and mortar stores fight back against increasing on line sales.

“I think people sitting on a little money and actually willing to let it go this Christmas season,” said Weldon. “I am very confident in the economy right now.”

Adults age 30 to 50 are expected to spend $50 more than the $1,000 they spent last year.

The bump Is a welcome surprise.

There are fewer shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, which caused dire predictions over the summer.

“There’s a lot of positivity out there. Projections are up over last year,” said Shalley.

And there are smiles as well at Nic’s Toggery, a family owned clothing store.

“We tend to be profitable throughout the year, but we tend to make a good profit at Christmas and its a good time of the year for us,” said co-owner Victor Galvas.

Gift cards have been the top seller so far this season, with clothing and electronics not far behind.

Low unemployment, wage growth, and overall high consumer confidence are getting credit for the increased holiday shopping.

Christmas sales account for about 20 percent of a retailers annual profit.

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Push to Expand Hate Crimes Draws Bi-Partisan Support

November 25th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

There were 141 hate crimes in Florida reported to the FBI in 2018.

The gunman who killed a female FSU student and professor at the hot yoga studio in Tallahassee last year was found to have a long history of hating women.

Victim Maura Binkley’s father Jeff Binkley founded Maura’s Voice after the shooting with hopes of uncovering ways to prevent hate spurred violence.

“There’s not much known about it and it needs to be addressed,” said Binkley in March.

The Yoga shooting wasn’t included in the FBI’s 2018 hate crime report, because in Florida gender isn’t included in the state’s hate crime laws.

Maura’s Voice has since come out in support of legislation that would add gender as a protected class.

“The reason we must legally call all hate crimes by their name and provide specific punishments is that they, above all, undermine fundamental values of a decent society in very specific ways, corroding respect for others; a sense of responsibility to all of our brothers and sisters; the freedom to live our lives without fear of being attacked simply because of who we are; and yes, freedom of individual expression,” Binkley said in a statement.

Meg Baldwin with Refuge House believes it would be a step in the right direction.

“To reframe what these crimes are really all about. To dislodge them even further from those old stereotypes that these were all crimes of passion that had to do with an excess of feeling rather than an intention to harm and demean,” said Baldwin.

The legislation has been filed for the past three sessions, but has never gotten traction.

This year however, the legislation for the first time has both Democrat and Republican co-sponsors.

“Hatred of women and crimes against women are not partisan issues,” said Baldwin.

If the bill does pass in 2020, Florida would join 31 other states that already have hate crime laws that include gender-based crimes.

The legislation filed in Florida would also add gender identity to the state’s hate crime statute.

Only 17 states currently include gender identity under their hate crime laws.

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DOC Secretary Pushes Forward with Shift Reductions Despite Union Objections

November 25th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The Florida Department of Corrections is moving ahead with plans to change from 12 hour shifts to 8 and a half hour shifts in at least a third of the state’s prisons.

The move is opposed by the union representing officers, but in an exclusive interview, the new Secretary said he’s banking his department’s future on the change.

Faced with a staffing crisis just over seven years ago, state prisons moved to 12 hour shifts with rotating days off.

Instead of solving the problem, 3,000 of the 13,000 positions used to guard inmates are vacant.

Corrections Secretary Mark Inch calls it a downward spiral.

“You know, As the vacancies increase, you have to rely more on the overtime, but as you rely more on the overtime, the vacancies increase,” said Inch.

Officers now working 12 hour shifts can be ordered to work four hours of overtime.

Before the 12 hour shifts, the department spent $6 million a year on overtime.

Last year it was $70 million.

It is part of the reason the system has seen an uptick in staff on inmate violence.

“Fatigue affects behavior, of course,” said Inch.

But the union representing the officers opposes the change to shorter shifts.

“Every once in a while, they get a weekend off, where when they go to the eight hour shift, that’s not gonna happen. And that’s very important to the officers,” said James Baiardi with the Florida Police Benevolent Association.

Union aside, the Secretary says the agency is going forward with the pilot

“We’re not going to convince them all, but we are going to bring in a whole new generation of correctional officers, because this is about being able to bring in and retain a new generation of corrections professionals,” said Inch.

Under the plan, a third of the prisons would move to 8 hour shifts next summer.

The conversion of the rest of the department will be based on how the pilot works and lawmakers providing the funding for more hires.

Part of the plan also calls for $1,500 bonuses after two years on the job, and $2,500 more after five years.

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Death Row Exoneree Fights for Compensation

November 22nd, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Clemente Aguirre-Jarquin spent a decade on death row for a murder the Florida Supreme Court ruled he did not commit.

Now he’s fighting the state over compensation for his wrongful incarceration.

Under state law, a wrongly convicted person has ninety days to file for payments, but after the state high court set him free in 2016, he remained behind bars.

Attorney Josh Dubin says as a result, he missed the 90-day window.

He’s hoping to get a Special Master to recommend lawmakers pay anyway.

“This indeed is the most unique case I have ever encountered. It is the strongest case of actual Innonence I have ever seen, and it is the most overwhelming case of guilt of another person I have ever seen,” said Innocence Project Attorney Josh Dubin.

The daughter of one of two women murdered has confessed.

The second woman was her grandmother, but she has not been charged with the crime.

Clemente Aguirre-Jarquin could receive up to $50,000 for each of the nearly 15 years he spent behind bars.

The State Attorney fighting the case contends he is still the guilty person.

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Families Remember Missing Children at State Capitol

November 22nd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Missing children and their families were recognized at the state Capitol Friday morning.

Each year the families of missing children gather at the State Capitol.

Many knowing they’ll likely never see their loved ones again.

There are more than 1,000 missing children in Florida, but among the lost there are glimmers of hope.

Last year alone more than 30 children were brought home safely thanks to amber and missing children alerts.

“And we will continue to fight to bring every child home and we will not rest until we do so,” said Florida’s First Lady Casey DeSantis.

The ceremony serves as a memorial for families, but also a chance to recognize the tireless efforts of those who work to bring missing children home.

“When a certain case leaves the spotlight, they never forget it,” said Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody.

And for Dan Campbell, whose step-daughter Wendy Hudakoc went missing in 1998, the ceremony is a painful, but necessary annual pilgrimage.

“It doesn’t get any easier, but it’s still equally important,” said Campbell.

While the search continues for those still missing, Citizen of the Year award winners Dawn and Anthony Butrym, whose efforts helped bring home a special needs teen who’d been missing for five days in 2018, have a message for families waiting for closure.

“There’s hope out there. I mean there’s several children out there in this day and age even after years are being found. You know, so don’t quit looking. There’s hope,” said Dawn.

The event spotlights Florida’s missing children once a year, but advocates say it takes a 24-7 effort on behalf of citizens and law enforcement alike to bring them home.

The number to report a missing child or adult to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is 1-888-FL-MISSING.

You can also sign up to receive AMBER and Missing Child Alerts at www.missingchildrenalert.com.

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FSU’s Hazing Crackdown Holding Bad Actors Accountable

November 21st, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Greek Organizations at Florida State University are having trouble accepting what the university is calling the ‘new normal’ when it comes to hazing.

Multiple chapters have been closed in wake of the 2017 death of Pi Kappa Phi pledge Andrew Coffey.

After Coffey’s death FSU vowed to crack down on hazing.

“And that’s why I’m enacting several changes effective immediately,” said FSU President John Thrasher in November of 2017.

Some of the changes FSU adopted to combat hazing include shortening the pledge period to six weeks, limiting the number of social events with alcohol and requiring new members complete a social orientation prior to recruitment to teach them about the university’s expectations.

But is it working?

Since the start of 2018 five fraternities have been closed and one Sorority has been suspended for hazing.

Three other organizations are now facing discipline for other conduct violations.

FSU President John Thrasher said it’s a sign the new system is catching bad actors.

“Many of the things that are going on have to be incremental. We have to continue to talk about them every single year, almost every single month, to reeducate the leadership of our fraternities about how we feel about those values,” said Thrasher.

But Brendon Johnson, a fraternity member we spoke with said aside from the university’s crack down, many greek organizations took Coffey’s death as a wake up call.

“We just lost someone. We need to figure out what’s going on, why this happened and that’s what our fraternity has done,” said Johnson.

Another student we spoke with, Caven Hamilton, agreed that Greek Life has learned some hard lessons.

“You know you have public outcry and then you’re going to have changes,” said Hamilton.

Coffey’s death also resulted in a new law that provides immunity to those who report hazing.

The university told us it isn’t certain whether Andrew’s Law has been invoked in any of the recent hazing cases.

But the University said reporting overall has increased as a result of greater hazing awareness on campus.

And while there are growing pains, the university is sending a tough message to bad actors… get with the picture or face the consequences.

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NRA Pushes Forward With Suit Challenging Age to Purchase Guns in Florida

November 21st, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The NRA is moving forward with a challenge to the state law banning the sale of rifles to anyone under 21.

It was enacted as a response to the deaths of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School in 2018.

On the day Rick Scott signed safe school legislation that also banned anyone under 21 from buying a gun the NRA filed suit.

Its plaintiffs were identified as John and Jane Doe.

“We wanted to protect these young adults from the vicious, hateful attacks and threats on their lives,” said NRA Lobbyist Marion Hammer.

A judge wouldn’t allow the plaintiffs to remain anonymous, so now the NRA has named a Jacksonville man as the plaintiff.

The hope is to get the case into court for resolution.

“These are young adults, 18 to 21. Old enough to go to war carrying a gun and die for their country, yet they are being denied their constitutional right to buy a firearm,” said Hammer.

19-year-old FSU student Anna Jensen isn’t happy about the law.

“I should be able to carry my weapon with me to protect myself if I should be attacked on the street,” said Jensen.

Other students like Francesca Althaus disagree.

“After the Parkland shooting, I think everyone is a little freaked out, but I think those rules should have been in place before then,” said Althaus.

When the Federal Government first banned the sale of handguns to anyone under the age of 21, a Texas case found that it was okay because they could still buy a long gun, but that’s no longer the case in Florida.

How quickly the case moves is important.

Once a plaintiffs turns 21, new plaintiffs need to be located.

The original plaintiffs, listed only as John and Jane Doe have since turned 21 and now have their right to own either a handgun or long gun.

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Floridians Flock to Flower, But Not Necessarily to Smoke

November 20th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Floridians are flocking to flower when it comes to medical marijuana.

A new report compiled for the state Board of Medicine and the Board of Osteopathic Medicine shows nearly half of the state’s 300,000 patients are using smokable medical marijuana, but some believe those numbers might be slightly misleading.

44 percent of the state’s 291,000 qualified patients are certified to use smokable medical marijuana even though it’s only been available for half a year.

In those six months, 57 tons of whole flower marijuana has been dispensed.

Some advocates like Jeff Sharkey with the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida aren’t surprised.

Sharkey said the traditional method has its appeal.

“Folks, certainly boomers and in their middle age are familiar with ‘joints’ probably find that a useful method of application,” said Sharkey.

Others are skeptical, like marijuana advocate Josephine Cannella-Krehl who founded MMJ Knowladge.

She said because edibles still aren’t available in Florida, many patients are using flower to make their own.

“You know that’s a big ethical dilemma that we’ve set up a program where in order to access the whole plant a person may have to go in and lie to their doctor,” said Cannella-Krehl.

While edibles still haven’t been approved, the draft rules so far suggest that when they are, restrictions will be severe.

“Tasteless, colorless, odorless, no additives. And if you look at other markets that have used edibles like California or Nevada it sort of runs the gamut. Everything from gummies to chocolates to lozenges and between,” said Nick Hansen with MedMen.

Strict rules could force Floridians to keep ‘baking their own brownies’ for the foreseeable future.

The popularity of whole flower has its benefits for distributors.

Unlike concentrates, whole flower is much cheaper to produce, which means higher profit margins for MMTCs many of whom are struggling to turn a profit.

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Governor’s Plan For Prisons Facing Push Back from Officers

November 20th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s prison system is in a staffing crisis, and this week, Governor Ron Desantis proposed hiring 292 new officers, but the system can’t fill the jobs it already has, and officers are pushing back on a plan to change their work schedules.

System-wide, nearly one in five corrections officers positions are vacant.

To cover vacant shifts, the department moved from eight to 12 hour shifts nearly a decade ago.

It still regularly forces officers to work overtime.

“We have several institutions were the vacancy rate is above twenty percent, which is very dangerous for our correctional officers,” said Jim Baiardi with the Florida Police Benevolent Association.

As part of his budget, the Governor wants to spend $29 million for a pilot to move offers back to an eight hour shift.

“And then try to do some incentive pay to keep people there because the morale has been low,” said DeSantis.

But the plan is getting pushback from officers and their union.

“It’s unpopular with about 80 percent of the officers,” said Baiardi.

Prisons are usually in remote areas and switching to eight hour shifts would mean more travel time.

The PBA has gotten nearly 300 emails from officers who don’t want to make the stitch.

“The days off rotate and every once in a while, they get a weekend off. When they go to an eight hour shift, that’s not going to happen,” said Baiardi.

The PBA sued over the proposed change, arguing work hours were negotiable under the constitutionally protected collecting bargaining rights.

It won.

The state appealed.

And that appeal is giving some offices a bad taste.

They feel like the DOC holds them to a high standard, but then ignores the constitution when it comes to collective bargaining.

Baiardi believes the correct solution would be an across the board pay raise.

Under the Governor’s plan, officers would get a $1,500 raise for staying two years, and $2,500 more if they stay five years.

Starting salary is now at $33,500.

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Election Security a Focus of Governor’s Budget Proposal

November 19th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A high priority of the Governor’s budget is increasing election security.

The request comes after Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee issued a grave warning of ongoing threats.

“Every single day domestic actors and foreign actors attempt to penetrate our Department of State networks,” said Lee in October.

Governor Ron DeSantis took the issue seriously in his proposed 2020 budget request

“We’re doing $6.6 million for elections cyber security enhancements,” said DeSantis.

The Governor’s proposal includes items the Department of State has been requesting for years.

$1.3 million would go towards hiring ten cyber security experts who would not only help at the state level, but also advise local election supervisors how to bolster their defenses including Leon Supervisor Mark Earley.

“Our firewalls are being hit all the time, but there’s other threats too and so getting a better understanding of those, being able to develop responses requires a great level of expertise,” said Earley.

Another $1.4 million would implement a system known as the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, which will help ensure the state’s registration database is up to date and accurate.

Earley said while he appreciates the gesture from the Governor, getting money distributed in a timely manner will be pivotal, especially with the 2020 election cycle just around the corner.

“In 2018 there was money allocated at the federal level and we were right in the middle of the Summer very close to August when we actually had access to those funds and that was very difficult to get that implemented in time to have much of an impact,” said Earley.

The Governor’s proposal is only a request, it’s the Legislature that approves the final spending plan.

Since the 2018 election, Florida has committed about $18 million for election security enhancements.

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Prepare for an Expensive Marijuana Legalization Fight in 2020

November 19th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The organizers behind the Make it Legal recreational marijuana amendment are closing in on 100,000 valid signatures and have said they will have enough to qualify for the 2020 election by the middle of December.

It is already promising to be a heated campaign.

A Ribbon was cut as MedMen opened its first medical marijuana dispensary in the State Capitol Tuesday.

A few patients came and went, but MedMen is banking on voters approving the recreational marijuana amendment the company is bankrolling.

“A super-majority of Floridians are truly wanting this and survey after survey is saying that,” said Make it Legal Florida Chairperson Nick Hansen.

So far, MedMen and another license holder Surterra, have already dropped $1 million each into the petition process.

They are already planning ahead for an expensive campaign.

“You starting at multiples of millions and it could be, you know, ten times that when you are done, but it really depends on where is the polling and who is the opposition,” said Hansen.

Barney Bishop is on the other side of the debate.

He said MedMen is right, it’s going to be an expensive and hard fought election.

“No question that law enforcement and other conservative opponents are going to spend a lot of money to try and keep this ballot initiative from winning,” said Bishop.

Bishop said a $10 million opposition campaign would be possible.

Some state House members are already arming themselves with information to fight the amendment.

Last month, Dr. Bertha Madras a Harvard Professor of Psychobiology testified before a committee Chaired by Rep. Ray Rodrigues.

“The alarm bells are beginning to come in with marijuana, and we hope people are listening,” said Madras.

Rodrigues has been vocal in his position to legalizing recreational marijuana.

Florida is already expected to be a battleground state for the Presidency next year and likely for legal marijuana as well.

The deadline for certifying petitions is February first.

More than 766,000 are needed to get on the ballot.

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Judge Rejects Florida Law That Put Republicans First on Ballots

November 18th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A federal court ruling could change up the order candidates appear on the ballot.

Republicans have been listed first for the last two decades because they’ve controlled the Governor’s Mansion, but Democrats argued it’s put them at a disadvantage because of something called the primacy effect, which is the tendency for people to choose something that appears first.

Former Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho said appearing first has a measurable advantage.

“When you have a law that gives one party a one and a half to five percent advantage in every election at some point you have to say that’s not fair,” said Sancho.

Evan Power, who serves as the Chair of Chairs for the Republican Party of Florida, believes the advantage is exaggerated.

“When it was enacted by Democrats, Democrats were winning and then the state was taken over by Republicans. So obviously a five percent effect would never have allowed that to occur,” said Power.

But a Federal Judge has struck down the law, siding with Democrats who filed suit earlier this year.

Power called the ruling partisan.

“It was good policy. It was passed by Democrats 70 years ago and hasn’t posed a problem until now that the Democrats have become very litigious on every election point,” said Power.

The judge didn’t tell the state how to fix the problem.

That falls on the Florida Legislature.

While Sancho said there are many examples of ballot rotation in other states, he doesn’t expect the Republican controlled House and Senate to act any time soon.

“The Republican leadership will essentially do what they have done over the last decade, which is dig their heels in the sand,” said Sancho.

The Governor’s Office has confirmed it will appeal the ruling, which means Republicans will likely still appear first on the ballot in 2020.

The federal judge gave Florida’s Secretary of State three weeks to come up with a new plan, but the state will likely attempt to have the ruling put on hold before then.

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