As a lifelong resident of Sarasota, I’m compelled to comment on the “Change the Date” ballot proposal. During this hyper-partisan period, fueled by dark money and social media manipulation that increasingly tears our country apart, it is a good moment to reflect locally on how we build a better democracy and civic conversations from the ground up. If passed, this proposal can have dramatic, negative impacts on changing the nature of our local democracy.
The arguments for “Change the Date” are that the current scheme amounts to “voter suppression” and that it’s too expensive. Specifically, voter suppression is a strategy to influence the outcome of an election by preventing specific groups of people from voting - in particular, minorities. With Sarasota’s current system borne out of a successful 1980s NAACP lawsuit against the city which led immediately to the city’s first elected African-American Commissioner and Mayor, coupled currently with two weeks of early voting, there has been no cry of ‘voter suppression’ by anyone until funders of this push from the development community (Gulfcoast Builders Exchange, Argus Foundation, Chamber of Commerce, and Realtors PAC) thought it would be good garb for energizing voters on the issue. These are the same individuals and organizations who for years have been pushing to have a Strong Mayor form of government and now oppose the county “Single Member Districts” ballot amendment.
At a time when general elections are dominated by money, why would we ever want to push our city elections in the same toxic pond? Non-partisan city races will become hyper-partisan, with no relevance to fixing potholes or support policing. At the bottom of the ballot, there will be little bandwidth by local media for scrutiny of candidates and like the rest of our political system, the most-monied campaigns will rule the day. Worse, what has become a hallmark of city elections - door to door campaigning in the climate-friendly months of January through March - will go away with August primaries in the dog days of summer, resulting in little improvement in voter turnout. On saving tax dollars - the savings would amount to 0.05% of the city’s annual budget. Is this not a worthwhile investment to safeguard that the City of Sarasota doesn’t look like the rest of our country’s political system?
You don’t have to go far to see what lots of money in local, general elections look like - just examine the County Commission. Running at-large and amidst lots of noise from state and federal campaigns, they are buoyed by copious amounts of cash from the development community who their votes consistently serve, allowing them to dwarf political opponents as they run jingoistic campaigns that are light on substance and heavy on tired, partisan appeals littered on jumbo postcards, yard-signs, and billboards across the vast swath of Sarasota County. The harvest is little accountability to their district constituents and an overall erosion in quality of life and our democracy in general.
It is my hope for the vibrancy of local democracy and a greater level of civility in governance that voters be informed and vote no on the city of Sarasota's Change the Date amendment and yes on the County Commission Single Member Districts amendment.
Kelly Kirschner is former Mayor of the City of Sarasota and a lifelong resident of Sarasota County