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Sarasota Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020 1 month ago

Commissioners discuss single-member districts, future of county elections

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After the 2020 elections, commissioners want to gauge public opinion on single-member districts.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

Less than a month after Sarasota County voters cast ballots in single-member district elections for the first time since the 1990s, county commissioners say the process was confusing and asked staff to survey the public on the voting system.

More than 60% of Sarasota County voters approved a 2018 referendum allowing single-member commission districts, which means that residents only vote in the commission race for their district, not every district countywide.

Commissioners, all Republicans, on Nov. 17 said voters weren’t sure who their commissioners were and for whom they were eligible to vote. Many expressed concern that voters don’t know what single-member districts are. 

Kindra Muntz, the president of Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections, said the organization hosted forums and collected more than 15,000 petition signatures to get the referendum on the 2018 ballot. She said voters knew “exactly what they were doing” when they approved the switch. 

“It’s misleading and really an insult from the commissioners to say the people didn’t know what they were doing,” Muntz said. “It really is an insult.”

The county previously switched to single-member voting in 1992 but switched back to at-large voting two years later.

Commissioner Nancy Detert, who initiated the Nov. 17 conversation, said she’d like to see a countywide survey to gain input on the single-member election and if voters preferred the previous at-large system.

“I want to see a survey outlining the way it used to be: When three county commissioners were up, you voted for three county commissioners. Or do you want to keep it the way it is?” Detert said. “Did they feel they were deprived of the right to vote, or did they think it was a great idea?”

Commissioner Christian Ziegler agreed with the survey, but he said it would have to deliver information on the issue because many survey-takers might still be confused. He said staff would have to find an “unbiased way” to write the questions.

“You really have to wonder what the motivation is behind any effort to undo this” said Pat Rounds, a member of Citizens for District Power. “[Were] there people showing discontent? There was record turnout at the polls. I don’t recall anyone standing outside polling areas saying, ‘We hate single-member districts.’”

Commissioners said they would continue talking about the survey at their December planning retreat. In early discussions, commissioners did not mention an attempt to repeal the citizen-led referendum, but many expressed disdain for the system.

Chair Mike Moran said it allows self-funded candidates who only care about one district-specific issue to more easily gain a seat.

“It opens the door for a candidate that has a lot of personal wealth and just has an axe to grind on a very specific one-issue topic,” Moran said “They don’t care about the county as a whole, like we all might at this dais. They care about a specific issue and use their own personal money to try and buy that seat.”

Ziegler said the move makes commissioners less accountable because they only have to worry about their own district.

“It basically immediately removed 80% of the representation. It also removed 80% of their accountability and holding county commissioners accountable,” Ziegler said. “I mean, If I’m a citizen, I want to be able to hold all five of my commissioners accountable because at the end of the day, they’re spending all my money for me.”

Commissioners last year voted to redraw district lines ahead of the 2020 census, a decision that triggered a federal civil rights lawsuit. The suit claimed the map discriminated against voters because it moved a large number of Black voters from District 1 into District 2, meaning they weren’t able to vote in the 2020 elections.

A federal judge said the suit had no racial grounds, but the redistricting was “political in nature.”

Moran retained his District 1 seat by more than 11 points in the recent election.

Ziegler’s District 2 seat comes up for reelection 2022. Voters in a broad swath of that same geography favored Democrat Joe Biden in the recent presidential race, in contrast to the 10-point countywide victory of Republican Donald Trump.

“People were not happy with how [the redistricting] was conducted,” Rounds said. “So to take and undo, essentially for the second time, the will of the voters, I just don’t understand this unless what you have here is a desire to maintain the status quo in your districts.”

Commissioners say there are consequences to eliminating at-large districts, and the survey is necessary to gauge public opinion after voters experienced their first single-member district.

“I’m not sure the public has been exposed to what single-member districts truly are,” Ziegler said.

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