When Mollie Cardamone was elected to the City Commission in 1993, more than half of the voters that year cast a ballot in support of her candidacy.
Cardamone quickly learned that, because of the city’s election process, her experience was atypical. At the time, in the city’s March elections — particularly the at-large races with fields as large as nine candidates — commissioners entered office with a mere plurality of the votes, occasionally ascending to the ceremonial position of mayor after earning less than 20% of the total votes cast.
Cardamone, who served on the commission until 2001, was the leading force in changing that system. She believed that commissioners should have to receive a majority of the votes to enter office, and sought to ensure that was the case going forward. That led to the creation of the city’s current election process, in which the top two vote-getters advance to a runoff in May if nobody receives a majority of the votes in March.
“It's the American way to win an election by a majority,” Cardamone says today.
Right now, the requirement that a candidate win a majority of the votes is one of several elements of Sarasota’s municipal election process that is subject to change. At the July 6 City Commission meeting, the board voted 3-2 to consider placing a potential charter amendment on the 2016 ballot, asking voters whether they wanted to move the city elections from spring to fall.
That change could take many forms: Under one proposal, the primary would move from March to August, with the runoff moved from May to November. Under another, the two-step process would be eliminated completely, with a November election deciding which candidates joined the City Commission.
Either way, the premise behind the change is simple: Voter turnout in the spring is lower than in November, and the city would save money if it didn’t hold its own election. Although the move has its advocates — including Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell, who asked for the question to be put on the ballot — a group of active citizens are already criticizing the rationale behind the changes.
"I believe changing the election, with the primary in August, will bring out a huge Republican interest." — Mollie Cardamone
One of those citizens is Cardamone. Before the July 6 meeting, she sent a list of her concerns regarding the potential move. In addition to her focus on preserving the majority-vote system, Cardamone was a critic of the increased political party activity in this year’s nonpartisan City Commission race. If the election were moved, she thinks the problem would only get worse.
“I'm very, very upset over the fact that one party got so heavily involved in this city election,” Cardamone said. “I believe changing the election, with the primary in August, will bring out a huge Republican interest.”
In the fall, state or national races could have a number of effects on the down-ballot City Commission race. Traditionally, thanks to the county’s Republican lean, primary elections have drawn out more Republican voters — hence Cardamone’s fear that the partisan influence could increase.
"It'll come down to party and whoever has the biggest warchest." — Eileen Normile
Eileen Normile, who was appointed to the City Commission in 2014 before losing her seat in May, was another vocal critic of the increased partisan involvement in her race. She, too, is skeptical about the benefits of the proposed move — and worries the nuances of the proposal might be overlooked.
“People are simplifying it, saying, ‘Let's move it to November — we save money and we increase the number of people who vote,’” Normile said. “They're both certainly worthy goals, and I think a lot of people will sign on without learning about the pitfalls.”
Normile echoed Cardamone’s stance on the partisan problem, and added some practical concerns of her own. As someone who just ran for a City Commission seat, Normile wondered about how that process would work if the initial campaign shifted from January, February and March to June, July and August.
On a physical level, Normile said, campaigning in the hot summer months would be unpleasant, to say the least. Even if candidates pushed past the heat, many residents leave the area around that time of the year, making door-to-door campaigning a challenge. Crowds at candidate forums would be smaller — and space at some venues, such as Tiger Bay, would be hard to come by with county, state and national elections ongoing concurrently.
Normile, who criticized the local coverage of her race as she left office, doesn’t trust the media to fill in the gaps for citizens who are out of town. As a result, she believes candidates will hear the most from local political parties and the candidates themselves, as funding allows.
“Money, then, plays a much, much greater role in winning the races,” Normile said. “It'll come down to party and whoever has the biggest warchest.”
Already, the debate is showing signs of a divide similar to the one that characterized the push for an elected “strong” mayor. Normile ran a political committee opposing that campaign, while representatives who supported a strong mayor are also supporting fall elections. Those supporters include former City Commissioner Paul Caragiulo and downtown resident Peter Fanning, who say moving the election date was a more broadly accepted proposal.
Atwell is the aware of the opposition to the change, but the points raised generally don’t concern her, particularly considering what she sees as the benefits.
“I think a lot of the pushback is a lot of ‘what if,’” Atwell said. ‘“If you do this, this may happen.’”
"I think a lot of the pushback is a lot of 'what if?'" — Suzanne Atwell
She took the most umbrage with the suggestion that “informed” voters already turn out for the spring election. Cardamone, for example, stated she wasn’t interested in accommodating people who weren’t willing to vote in March or May. Atwell called that suggestion arrogant and antiquated, stating that any increase in citizen involvement would be a good thing.
“In the days of the Athenian government, they came up with a concept of ‘philosopher kings,’” Atwell said. “They're the ones that were in the know, and they knew what they were doing — they were the ones who should be rulers. That's not a winning idea for the city of Sarasota.”