This article has been updated to correctly identify Pat Rounds' title. She is a past secretary of Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections.
Sarasota County commissioners are hoping to overturn the way the five-member local government board is elected, by only voters in the district where they live.
The system – called single-member districts – was approved by voters in a 2018 referendum. Previously, commissioners were elected by voters countywide.
The county commissioners have expressed opposition to single-member districts on several occasions. Next Tuesday, they’ll vote on whether to hold another referendum on the issue. If the commission approves holding a new vote on the issue, it will appear on the ballot in a March 8, 2022 special election, along with a question about whether to renew an optional property tax for schools.
Proponents of single-member districts say that a majority of county voters have already shown their support for the system, as it was approved with nearly 60% of the vote in 2018.
“From the very beginning, I’ve thought that it’s very troublesome that an elected commission – people elected to represent the interests of their district and the county as a whole – would go to such lengths to overturn a very decisive voter mandate,” said Pat Rounds, a past secretary of Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections, which ran the petition campaign that led to the 2018 referendum.
Proponents also believe that single-member districts will make commissioners more accountable, as their performance will be evaluated by a smaller number of people who may be affected directly by decisions they make.
But commissioners argue that single-member districts prevent residents from voting for four out of five commissioners, as they only select their own district's commissioner.
Politics are also at play in the debate. A Democrat hasn't been elected to the County Commission in more than 50 years. More Democrats live in District 2, which would have the potential to flip blue if the single-member districts system remains in place.
Commissioners’ opposition to single-member districts
At their Nov. 15 meeting, commissioners voted to have the county attorney draft an ordinance calling for a special election on the single-member districts issue.
Later that day, the commissioners chose a map with revised boundary lines for the districts they represent, as the board has been adjusting to population changes identified in the 2020 census. They had three options for maps, and did not chose the one that would have made it easier for Commissioner Christian Ziegler to be re-elected next year. They instead selected one that’s largely similar to the map they approved in 2019, the last time the board redrew the boundaries.
Ziegler, a Republican, is up for re-election next November. Under the 2019 redistricting map, his district was majority Democratic. The new map that commissioners recently adopted slightly modifies his district, so the current partisan breakdown of his district is unclear. But it's very likely that the county as a whole has a higher percentage of Republicans than his district does, so Ziegler could benefit from a return to county-wide commission elections.
If the commissioners’ referendum is approved in March, the Sarasota County Charter would be amended to revert to electing commissioners countywide.
At their Nov. 15 meeting, commissioners criticized single-member districts. Ziegler argued that the system is a form of disenfranchisement, as citizens only vote for one of the five commissioners.
“It took away 80% of their ability to vote for representation and to vote for accountability on the County Commission – instantly,” he said.
Commissioner Nancy Detert said that in the 2020 election, citizens in two districts couldn’t vote for a county commissioner and citizens in three districts could only vote for one.
“I just can’t even fathom why people would want to give up their own right to vote for all the county commissioners who are running,” Detert told the Herald-Tribune. “I find it stupefying, frankly.”
Residents of districts 1, 3 and 5 currently vote for their respective commissioner during presidential election years, while districts 2 and 4 vote for their commissioner during the midterm elections. Citizens thus only vote in a commission election every four years, whereas they previously voted on commission races every two years.
“Disenfranchising voters and not letting over 250,000 people vote in an election is unacceptable and I will do everything in my power to let every citizen, vote in every election, and be able to vote for all the Sarasota County Commissioners,” Commissioner Mike Moran told the Herald-Tribune in an email.
Proponents of single-member districts voice their concerns
R.N. Collins, a community activist, said the commissioners’ opinion that single-member districts remove four votes from local citizens is a specious argument.
“Having a meaningful vote is more important than having a lot of votes,” he said.
Collins said that in some past commission elections, a majority of voters in a district have chosen a certain candidate to represent their district, but voters from outside the district caused that candidate to lose the election.
John Quinn, a resident of Englewood, also noted that voters in one district can be outvoted by the other four districts in a county-wide voting system. He prefers single-member districts.
“I think it’s, first of all, the most proper way for citizens of this county to end up with an elected commissioner who is most closely connected with them, rather than maybe more closely connected with some of the particularly developer interests, who can fund their campaign,” he said.
Valerie Buchand, a leader in the Newtown community, believes that her community wasn’t adequately represented under the at-large voting system. She did not see her commissioner at Newtown events, for example.
Buchand contends the commissioners want to limit the voices of residents of Newtown and some other areas of the city of Sarasota.
“The County Commissioners want to limit the voices so that they can stay in power,” she said, “because it appears that they have a power struggle.”
Single-member districts proponents also rallied at a Sarasota County Charter Review Board meeting in October. County Commissioner Alan Maio had asked the charter review board to review the impacts of single-member districts, so the body had a meeting on the subject.
After hearing many members of the public express their support of the system, the board decided to not challenge it. The panel instead voted unanimously to send the matter back to the commission.
Anne Snabes covers city and county government for the Herald-Tribune. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (941) 228-3321 and follow her on Twitter at @a_snabes.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Sarasota County might hold referendum on single-member districts