With Decide the Date City of Sarasota Charter amendment approved, city election cycle moving to August and November

Current commissioners’ terms will be extended to facilitate the switch

The Decide the Date Facebook page has featured this photo. Image from the Facebook page

As Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin pointed out in his Nov. 9 newsletter, “City voters gave overwhelming approval (63%) to the Decide the Date initiative, which means there will be new election dates for City elections.”

Among the multitude of amendments to the Florida Constitution and the Sarasota County Charter, a single measure on the Nov. 6 General Election ballot asked voters in the City of Sarasota whether they wanted to move city elections from a March/May cycle to an August/November cycle. As Barwin noted, unofficial returns posted by the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office show 63.36% of voters registered in the city agreed that the change should be made.

Altogether, those unofficial returns show, 21,755 votes were cast on that referendum, which the City Commission voted in June to place on the ballot.

The only precinct where the amendment did not prevail was 115, Supervisor of Elections Office records show. That precinct is at the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex in north Sarasota. There, 50.74% of the votes cast opposed the change in elections. Altogether, based on the unofficial returns, 2,899 votes were cast in that precinct.

A graphic shows the precinct breakdown for the Decide the Date referendum, with voters making Precinct 115 (in green) the only one where the measure failed. Image courtesy Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections

A community team had worked since late 2017 to win enough voter signatures on petitions to get the measure on the ballot. The group ended up gathering 4,732 signatures, 27% more than their goal.

They presented data to the City Commission to illustrate their assertions that more voters participate in November elections than in the spring and, especially, more African American and Hispanic voters go to the polls in the fall.

In response to a Sarasota News Leader response for a comment on the Nov. 6 results, former City Commissioner and Mayor Suzanne Atwell — one of the co-chairs of the Decide the Date campaign — offered the following statement: “The citizens of Sarasota have spoken. I thank them. And, I thank my Decide the Date team. This is what a true bi-partisan effort can accomplish for the greater good. We need more of that. For too long, our community has given a collective nod to a failed election system that has inhibited the opportunity to reach and serve the entire electorate. Now we will have more voters and more accountability. Our City and our Democracy demand it.”

Opponents of the initiative say City Commission races will be obscured on General Election ballots, especially ballots similar in length to the ones voters faced on Nov. 6.

They also pointed out that having the initial elections in March in no way kept voters from casting ballots. Typically, March is the month when even most seasonal residents remain in town, opponents said.

Decide the Date Co-Chairs Suzanne Atwell and Larry Eger pose outside City Hall. Photo courtesy of Decide the Date

Former City Commissioner Susan Chapman — who lost her re-election bid in 2017 — called the Decide the Date election result “a terrible thing” as she addressed members of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA) during their Nov. 12 meeting.

“The part that really disturbs me,” she said of the advocates’ efforts to gain voter support for the City Charter amendment, “is that it never was honestly conveyed to the public … that it’s a change [of] two dates.”

If enough City Commission candidates running for seats warrant an initial vote in August, Chapman added, the voters will be making their decisions during the Primary Election, when most other races are partisan.

When she tried to explain to people all the facets of the proposed changes in the city elections, she continued, it would take her half an hour to do so, because of the complexities, even if she was talking to well-educated voters.

Chapman also pointed to the Democratic Party’s heightened involvement in the past two City Commission elections. “Now we’re going to have really partisan elections in the city instead of non-partisan elections,” she said.

Making their case  

Decide the Date representatives offered these graphics to underscore their assertion that voter participation is lower in spring city elections. Image courtesy Decide the Date

When Atwell and other members of the Decide the Date campaign appeared before the City commission in early June, Atwell pointed out that the advocacy group encompassed business owners, current and former elected officials and organizations “concerned with lower voter turnout” in the city’s elections in March and May. The group is non-partisan, she emphasized, and “We range from liberal to moderate to conservative.”

City Commissioner Hagen Brody, who supported the change in city elections, told his colleagues on June 4 that the August 2016 primaries had higher voter turnout than the March and May city elections in 2017, when he and Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch were elected.

A News Leaderreview of Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections records for the August 2016 Primary Election found overall voter turnout was 26.08%. The Supervisor of Elections Office says 76,719 ballots were cast, with 294,199 voters registered for that election.

In March 2017, voter turnout for the at-large City Commission election was 19.14%, the Supervisor of Elections Office records show; in May 2017, it was 22.86%.

Kevin Cooper, president and CEO of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, told the commissioners on June 4 that data the Decide the Date group had researched showed that in the city’s spring elections between 2012 and 2017, an average of 90.92% of voters were white, compared to 84.89% in the November elections. The percentage of African-American voters in the spring averaged 4.75%, compared to 8.6% in November; and the Hispanic average in the spring was 1.54%, compared to 3.04% in November.

Putting the changes into effect

In his Nov. 9 newsletter, City Manager Barwin also explained how the Nov. 6 decision will affect the next cycle of City Commission races.

The election for the District 1, 2, and 3 seats had scheduled for March and May 2019. Instead, they will be conducted in August and November 2020. “Similarly,” he wrote, “the terms for the two [at-large] seats will be pushed forward to August and November 2022.”

Barwin added, “So, by the fall of 2022 the City election cycle realignment will be complete.”

This is the section of the city ordinance describing how the switch in election timing will be implemented. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

City Attorney Robert Fournier also provided details to the commissioners in late June about the changes that would be implemented if the Decide the Date City Charter amendment were approved.

A first election will be held in August if three or more persons qualify as candidates for the three district seats and if four or more qualify for the two at-large seats, he said. That first election would be held on the same date as the August primaries.

If only two people qualified for a district seat, or if only three qualified for the at-large seats, then those elections would be on the November ballot, Fournier pointed out.

“No City Commissioners would be elected in the first election,” held in August, the proposed ordinance says. “All City Commissioners would be elected during the general election, which, by Florida Statute, takes place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of each even numbered year,” the proposed ordinance adds.