Decide the Date campaign needs signatures of 3,758 registered city voters for referendum to be scheduled
A new initiative is underway to shift the City of Sarasota election cycle from March to November.
A group called Decide the Date Sarasota, which lists the same address as the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, is working to gain the necessary number of signatures of registered City of Sarasota voters so it can put a proposed City of Sarasota Charter amendment on the ballot.
That number is 3,758, City Auditor and Clerk Pamela Nadalini confirmed on Dec. 19 for The Sarasota News Leader.
The summary of the proposed Charter amendment says the general elections for City Commission would be held in November in even-numbered years, to coincide with federal, state, county and district elections. A primary would be conducted in August if three or more people qualified as candidates, the summary explains. The two candidates receiving the highest number of votes then would have their names placed on the November General Election ballot.
For at-large elections, the document continues, if four or more persons qualify as candidates, their names would appear on the primary ballot in August; the three who received the highest vote totals would advance to the November election.
A letter from Nadalini to 12th Judicial Circuit Public Defender Larry Eger — co-chair of Decide the Date — verified her office’s receipt of the petition drive materials and said Decide the Vote will have 180 days from Dec. 12 to obtain the necessary number of required voter signatures. The 3,758 figure represents a rounding off of 10% of the 37,579 city voters registered at the time of the March 14 City of Sarasota First Election. Nadalini confirmed the figures after conferring with the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office, she told the News Leader.
People who are registered to vote in the City of Sarasota elections may download the petition from the Decide the Date website.
Former Sarasota Mayor Suzanne Atwell is the other co-chair of the petition drive. Kevin Cooper, president and CEO of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, is the treasurer.
In a Dec. 18 telephone interview, Eger told the News Leader that the goal of the initiative is to improve voter turnout in the City Commission elections. Advocates for keeping the election cycle in March — with the potential for runoffs in May — argue that people can vote as easily in March as they can in November, he said. “It’s not a question of ‘Why should we move [the election] to November,’” Eger added. “It’s a question of ‘Why shouldn’t we move it to November?’”
Emphasis on the numbers
In the March City Commission election this year for two at-large seats, voter turnout was 19.14%, or 7,194 of the 37,579 registered city voters, the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office reported on its website.
During the May runoff among Jen Ahearn-Koch, Hagen Brody and Martin Hyde, 22.86% of the 37,365 registered voters at that time cast ballots, for a turnout of 22.86%, the Supervisor of Elections Office data show. Ahearn-Koch and Brody were elected in that runoff.
In the November 2016 General Election, 77.32% of all registered county voters cast ballots, the Supervisor of Elections Office reported.
Data the News Leader researched on the Supervisor of Elections Office website shows that for the previous three city elections in March, voter turnout ranged from 17.78 percent in 2011 to 21.87 percent in 2015. Runoff turnout ranged from 14.81 percent in 2011 to 18.7 percent in 2015.
The Decide the Date website points out that during City Commission elections in odd-numbered years, voter turnout is often below 20%. “In the regular elections, it is two or three times higher [the emphasis is on the website].”
“Repeatedly [emphasis again on the website], a majority of the Sarasota City Commission has refused to allow voters to decide the date of the elections in a referendum. This leaves the petition process as the only method of allowing the voters to decide the date,” the website says.
The City of Bradenton moved its elections from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years in 2010, the website notes. While turnout in Bradenton in 2009 was only 14%, the website says, turnout increased to 71% in 2012; it was 53% in 2014 and 66% in 2016.
“Our democracy suffers when nearly 80 percent of registered voters do not or cannot participate,” Eger said in a news release issued when the petition drive kicked off.
Holding the elections in November, Eger told the News Leader, “will force candidates to not limit their engagement [with potential voters].” He added that they will have to undertake “a much more broad-based campaign.”
Cooper of the Chamber said in a separate Dec. 18 telephone interview with the News Leader that what also has been dismaying has been the far smaller participation among minority voters and those under the age of 30 in the spring elections. May data showed the turnout for African-Americans was 3.99%, compared to 9.7% in the November 2016 election, the Decide the Date website notes. Turnout among Latino voters was 1.98% in May, compared to 5.55% in the last November General Election, the website adds. For voters 29 and younger, turnout in May was 3.79%, compared to 10.86% in November 2016.
“It’s really unbelievable,” Cooper told the News Leader. “The composition of the voters changes, and not in a positive way.” Cooper called the statistics “really concerning.”
Supporters of changing the city election cycle also decry the cost of the special elections in the spring. While Brody in October cited an expense of $120,000 for the March and May votes, in response to a News Leader inquiry, Deputy City Auditor and Clerk Karen McGowan reported in an Oct. 17 telephone interview that the city spent $88,692.85 on the at-large election this year, when Brody and Ahearn-Koch were elected.
A grassroots approach
Although the Decide the Date website does not identify any of the organizers of the initiative, Eger said that he was recruited by representatives of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce. Downtown Sarasota business organizations, the Argus Foundation and church groups have volunteered to assist with the grassroots petition drive, he noted. “It’s been well-organized.”
He was brought into the discussions about two months ago, he estimated.
The initiative really began to build following the latest unsuccessful attempt at the City Commission dais to put a referendum on the ballot, Cooper told the News Leader.
On Oct. 16, newly elected Commissioner Brody urged his colleagues to move the voting to the fall. “We do have a very low voter turnout during the off-cycle elections,” Brody said during that regular City Commission meeting. By holding a primary in August and scheduling runoffs in November, he continued, “we could instantly have greater voter participation in the city elections.”
Yet, only Brody and Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie voted in favor of his motion to allow voters to decide on the issue.
On April 18, 2016, then-Commissioner Atwell made a motion to approve the scheduling of a referendum on the Nov. 8 General Election ballot, so voters could consider a switch to a November cycle. Her motion died for lack of a second.
One key factor in his willingness to serve as co-chair of Decide the Date, Eger said, is the fact that voters at last will be allowed to let their feelings be known. The focus of the petition drive is narrow, he stressed. “This is not a political agenda.”