Commissioners voted 3-2, on a first reading, to schedule a referendum, with hope of boosting low voter turnout in the future
The debate resurfaces nearly every two years, after low turnout in the biennial local elections: Does the City of Sarasota need to change the time of year when its residents vote on local issues and City Commission candidates.
On Tuesday evening, Jan. 19, in a 3-2 vote, the City Commission moved ahead with plans that would let voters decide the answer.
The commission approved, on first reading, the plan to hold a public referendum to allow registered city voters to cast ballots on changing the city election dates from March and May of odd-numbered years to November of even-numbered years.
If the board approves the referendum on a second reading later this year, voters could decide the issue during the Presidential Election this November.
The City Commission was divided on the issue. The change would mean voters making their choices as part of a general election, a move that Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell said is necessary to address “abysmal” voter turnout.
“I am supportive of anything that allows for the possibility of increasing turnout,” added Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie.
Eddie told her colleagues she has been discouraged by low participation levels, especially among younger residents.
Yet, Mayor Willie Shaw and Commissioner Susan Chapman, who cast the dissenting votes, voiced concerns that the change would bury city elections under many other ballot choices and drive up candidates’ costs as they try to run effective local campaigns amid the frenzy of national and state elections.
Shaw pointed out that city candidates would have to raise more money, and they ultimately would have to rely on partisan support in what are supposed to be non-partisan races.
“I think in the long run we will cringe at what we are doing,” Shaw added. “I cannot support this because it will make [city] elections more partisan.”
Shaw continued, “We will be overtaken by another partisan group that has dominated the process for a number of years across the county.”
The commissioners’ second required public hearing on Ordinance No. 16-5155 likely will not take place until April.
That is because City Attorney Bob Fournier advised them to wait until after the state legislative session ends in March, in case legislators render the issue moot: At least one draft bill was recently introduced in the Legislature to require all municipal elections to coincide with general November elections.
The commissioners also must decide on the ballot language.
In addition, the date change would necessitate a shift of the election cycle. “You need a phase-in or implementation plan,” said Fournier. “There is an 18-month gap between when you take office in May of an odd-numbered year under our current system until November of the next even-number year, if a change is to take place.”
One option is to add 18 months to commissioners’ existing terms; another is to add 18 months to the terms of the next group of elected commissioners. A third option calls for the board to reduce the terms of the next elected commissioners to 18 months as part of the transition.
Bottom of the ballot
Before voting on Jan. 19, the commissioners heard from seven speakers.
Don Hendrix, who identified himself as a longtime city resident, said holding the elections in November with no runoff process would be the “most democratic [method] and get the broadest participation.”
Added downtown resident Peter Fanning, “Change is difficult, but change is worth the effort when it involves greater citizen involvement.”
One resident, however, spoke against the proposed move. “Do we want our city on the bottom of the ballot?” asked Gretchen Serrie, adding that it would be “a ballot that in the last [presidential] election had 52 separate issues to vote on?”
Serrie pointed out that even some big cities — Los Angeles, Chicago and San Antonio among them — hold local elections separate from their general November elections.
When it comes to which Tuesday on which to hold local elections, the city commissioners have made it clear that they have split into two groups.
In July, Atwell, a vocal proponent of the change, raised the possibility of moving the election date from the spring to November, when more people head to the polls, as indicated by Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections office records.
The vice mayor points to turnout that is often less than 19 percent during city elections.
“The bottom line is we need to give all our citizens the right and venue to fully participate in elections,” Atwell told The Sarasota News Leader before Tuesday evening’s vote. “It’s about getting the optimum turnout.”
Atwell points to ancient Athenian times, when voting privileges were limited to men, and turnout hovered between 10 and 20 percent. For her city, Atwell wants a system that is much “more inclusive.”
Chapman acknowledged that the voter turnout figures are “depressing,” but she believes putting the city election on the November ballot would result in city issues falling under the shadow cast by national and state races. City candidates would likely be the last to speak during forums, for example, and it would be more difficult to recruit campaign volunteers for local races, Chapman noted. In such an environment, City Commission candidates also would have to raise more and more money, she added.
For Shaw, the change would essentially preclude grassroots candidates who run on smaller budgets — such as Shaw did during his first City Commission campaign, when he had only $5,000 to spend.
“I agree with the mayor that it will be the virtual end of the grassroots candidate,” Chapman said. “And it will be the beginning of the city machine candidates.”
She added, “The reason why is because to get your message out when there is a lot of money in other campaigns, you have to spend a lot of money. We are going to go from $2,500 or $5,000 campaigns to $100,000 campaigns … We see what money does in politics.”
Chapman also mentioned the potential difficulty of campaigning in hurricane season, which does not end until Nov. 30 each year.
Commissioner Liz Alpert, who voted for the referendum, said she was in favor of putting the question to the electorate.
But she had reservations about it, she pointed out, and she sympathized with some of the arguments in opposition to the change. Alpert said she, too, is concerned that candidates will have to raise more money if the change is approved.
“It is going to make it much more difficult to canvass because the universe is much larger,” Alpert added. “Fewer people will be paying attention to the city races … And I think the change does, in many ways, dilute the city election by taking it to November, so I am very torn about what to do.”
Atwell countered that the change would offer the community the best scenario for voting on local officials and issues.
“There will be a whole different climate if the City Commission race is in November. We are going to be part of it,” Atwell said. “This is going to be a whole different paradigm as we join the November elections.”