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Sarasota Monday, Aug. 22, 2016 3 years ago

Sarasota group aims to shake up local elections

Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections is pushing for single-member districts for the County Commission and Charter Review Board.
by: Alex Mahadevan News Innovation Editor

Candidates for countywide elections in Sarasota County need cash — a lot of it — to compete.

Take for example the Sarasota County School Board race: Incumbent Caroline Zucker said in a previous interview with the Sarasota Observer she would need $50,000 in campaign contributions to win.

“The challenge is is that when you have the size of area we cover — when you’re countywide — your budget goes up significantly,” said her opponent, Teresa Mast, in July. “Anyone who is well-informed going into a race understands that’s vitally important.”

But, Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections, a self-described non-partisan, grassroots organization aimed at “keeping Democracy safe”, wants that to change, at least for the County Commission and Charter Review Board.

SAFE has launched a petition drive to convert both government bodies to single-member districts, which means only voters within specific district covered by a board seat would vote for their specific candidate. The County Commission drives policy countywide, while the Charter Review Board recommends and reviews changes to the county’s charter.

SAFE President Kindra Muntz contends that the changes, which would require charter amendments, would make it cheaper for “more qualified” candidates to compete in local races. The margin for victory would be reduced from thousands of votes to, potentially, hundreds.

“All of our elections are being totally controlled by the largest moneyed interests,” Muntz said.

Opponents have argued that such a system restricts voting rights, because registered voters would only have say over the representative of their district, despite the fact that County Commission decisions can affect all residents. Further, since representatives would only be beholden to their own constituency, there could be more room for major disagreements among board members.

Muntz admits such a change may not affect the financial side of campaigns if big donors still target specific races.

“But, I think it would strengthen the County Commission, because you would have a balance of candidates from different district who would have to work together to pass a budget,” Muntz said.

SAFE aims to collect 17,000 signatures on its petitions by next year to get the amendments on the ballot “as soon as possible.” 

“We’ll have to see how the petition drives go,” Muntz said.

SAFE would not be able to alter School Board districts through a charter amendment. 

“It would be a good idea, though,” Muntz said.

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