Two former city commissioners point to different factors for low voter turnout in Sarasota. One says a date change would bring more voters to the polls.
Residents are talking about the City Commission candidates and the issues the city faces.
“No matter where I go, I get bombarded with people asking questions about what I think of this candidate or that candidate,” said former Mayor Mary Anne Servian.
The following candidates are running for the City Commission March 12: Suzanne Atwell, Susan Chapman, Richard Dorfman, Linda Holland, Kelvin Lumpkin and Pete Theisen. In the final days leading up to the election, candidates for the two at-large City Commission seats are using social media or traditional campaign tactics, such as mailers, to get voters to the polls. On Monday, March 4, as early voting began, challenger Richard Dorfman stood outside the Supervisor of Elections Office waving at passing traffic.
But, if the past three elections are any indication, less than 25% of registered voters will cast their ballots on or before March 12, despite the building buzz.
Servian doesn’t think the city’s trend of low voter turnout will change unless the city moves its election date for city elections — which are currently held every two years in March — to November.
“It’s not that people aren’t engaged or don’t care,” said Servian, who sat on the City Commission from 2001 to 2007. “People aren’t focusing on elections in March. People think about voting in November.
If city officials were to change the local election date, Servian predicts voter turnout would increase dramatically.
Although more voters head to the polls in November, it is impossible to predict what kind of turnout a City Commission election would get in November, said Ron Turner, chief of staff at the Sarasota Supervisor of Elections.
But data from the recent November election provides some insight into how city ballot questions fare during the general election. In November, a failed ballot initiative proposing to split the City Auditor and Clerk Office garnered 20,019 votes — or 57% voter turnout — nearly three times as many residents who voted in the City Commission elections in 2009 and 2011.
“Typically, turnout is higher in a general election and especially in a presidential election,” Turner said. “That is always our highest.”
Servian said some people opposed to changing the city election date say the City Commission races would go last on a long ballot and, thus, get less attention. But Servian doesn’t think that would deter voters.
The ballot initiative on the clerk and auditor office was listed further down on the ballot.
Former City Commissioner Ken Shelin hopes the trend of low voter turnout will change. But, he doesn’t think this upcoming election will yield a higher-than-average outcome.
Although he says there are several factors why so many residents don’t vote in city elections, Shelin doesn’t think the election date has much of an impact.
Shelin, who was a commissioner from 2005 to 2009, said too often a group of residents will mobilize behind a challenger only because they want to unseat an incumbent.
“It’s part of the political culture here to be reactive and not proactive,” Shelin said. As a result, one group will stand behind its chosen candidate, but that candidate might not “energize the public” in a way that would bring a large percentage of voters to the polls, he said.
To win one of the at-large seats, a candidate must get 50% of the total votes in the March 12 election. If none of the six candidates receives more than 50% of the vote, and, thus, a runoff election is required, that election will be held May 14. The top-three vote-getters would advance to the runoff election.
If one candidate wins outright, the next top-two candidates will take part in the runoff election to fill the second at-large seat.
ELECTION DAY VOTING
Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 12. Residents can enter their address and find their polling location online at sarasotavotes.com/precinctfinder.aspx.