When Sarasota County voters approved a single-member district measure last November, the stakes on redistricting changed significantly. Now, County Commissioners also appear intent on moving up the timetable. The county commission in May voted to hire a consultant and begin the process of redrawing all districts ahead of the 2020 census. That means commissioners will be prepared to redraw five county commission districts that will stand for a single election, before getting redrawn again based on different data provided by the federal government ahead of elections in 2022.

It’s all in response to a dramatic change in how county commissioners get elected. 

Supporters of the switch to single-member districts say elected officials are looking to undermine a popular voter initiative to advance their own political needs. 

“Our Commissioners want to choose their voters, rather than letting the voters choose their Commissioners,” says Kindra Muntz, head of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections.

But county commissioners themselves say the change in elections makes it important to balance the districts immediately. Otherwise, claims could be made about representation inequity in the future. “It’s smarter to do it right now,” says County Commissioner Nancy Detert.


Shift In The System

The divide over at-large or single-member districts has divided good government advocates involved in local elections everywhere, especially areas with partisan concentrations in the population. As Sarasota County, a solidly Republican area as a whole, saw the City of Sarasota and areas north of Clark Road trend steadily Democratic over the last decade, support grew for a shift in election methodologies locally.

That came to a head last November, after a citizen initiative pushed by SAFE and other groups passed overwhelmingly at the ballot box. Almost 60 percent of voters countywide supported a switch to electing county commissioners based only on the desires of voters living within each of the five county districts. Through most of Sarasota County’s history, commissioners were required to live in those districts but were elected countywide.

Detert didn’t support the measure, but she says there’s no intent to disrupt the will of voters. However, she says the shift makes it important that each of the county commission districts has roughly the same population.

The districts were drawn in 2011 with little controversy based on the 2010 Census results. The county commission at the time kept districts within 5 percent of one another in size, and the difference from largest to smallest was 4,417 people— with 77,737 living in District 5 and 73,320 living in District 4.

There will not be new census results until after the 2020 election, but consultants plan to look at other data for potential redistricting now. Voter registration numbers, which are readily available, showed that as of the 2018 elections, there were 72,157 registered voters in District 5, compared to just 56,135 in District 1. 

Of course, there’s always been a disparity in registered voters and in actual population. For example, in 2012, there were 51,206 registered voters in District 1, less than any other in the county, but census numbers showed there were 75,906 people living there.

Still the great disparity in population between districts today, in Detert’s eyes, shows urgency to redistricting. She expects whoever loses elections in low population districts next year could file a lawsuit saying the county knowingly held elections that cut too many voters out of the process.

It seems that argument has proved compelling to colleagues. With a 4-0 vote, the commission in May voted to bring on a consultant; County Comissioner Christian Ziegler was not present for that meeting and says he likely would have voted against that approach just because of the expense. But while a consultant will provide population estimates, commissioners have made clear they will retain a final say in how lines get drawn.



The approach has upset a broad swath of political activists in the county, particularly those who favored a switch. Democrats, who have not elected a county commissioner since the 1950s, see redistricting as a chance to get a party member on the board. 

For example, in 2016, County Commissioner Mike Moran easily beat Democrat Fredd Atkins countywide, but lost in his district, District 1. Atkins is exploring a bid in 2020 again, but won’t know if he still resides in District 1 until redistricting is concluded, and Moran gets one of five votes on how the map will look.

But the issue has also upset Republican politicians. The Venice City Council in June sent a letter to county commissioners demanding an explanation why redistricting would be pursued. Mayor John Holic says the process has paralyzed all politicians considering a run in 2020.

“Very few people can file for the next election because they don’t know the district where they are going to be living,” he says. “This is a great way to keep people out of the county process and make sure someone is selected who they want to fill the position.”

North Port City Commissioner Jill Luke, an independent, says she has no county ambitions but remains flustered by the county actions. “It’s spending taxpayer money to accomplish, evidently, their own goals,” Luke says.

The move also impacts voters themselves. Many who expect to vote in 2020 elections for commissioners in Districts 1, 3 and 5 may end up getting drawn out of their districts. And there’s a possibility that, before 2022, many voters moved into District 2 and 4 will be drawn out of those districts again.

Indeed, many of those suspicious that Republican commissioners want to draw safe districts for themselves expect heavily Democratic areas to get pushed out of District 1 before 2020, and out of District 2 before 2022.

Should that happen, voters could go six years before they can vote for a county commissioner. And that presumes commissioners don’t redistrict once more before 2024.



Of course, that presumes a great deal of ill intent on the part of county commissioners, something that has naturally upset the pols. “We’re not going to let activists dictate this process,” Detert says.

And the board has its defenders. Jack Brill, acting chair of the Republican Party of Sarasota, says the need for redistricting was obvious. “Equal representation is imperative in representative government,” he says.

Bob Waechter, a former party chair, notes that, historically, Sarasota County has frequently done off-year redistricting to balance districts. Every odd year in the 1980s, county commissioners did some type of rebalancing. “Frequent redistricting is more the rule than the anomaly in Sarasota’s history, and for good reason,” he says. “We are a growing county and we don’t grow evenly dispersed.”

There’s also been a significant amount of backlash at media scrutiny. Detert notes there was little media attention when the Sarasota County School Board redistricted ahead of the 2018 elections, apparently for the sole purpose of keeping School Board member Shirley Brown’s new home in her political district, but along the way also writing unsuccessful School Board candidate Teresa Mast out of her prior district to prevent a subsequent run.

Regardless, the process remains incomplete. Statute requires the process be completed in advance of an election year, so lines must get finalized before 2019 is over. But until consultant numbers and proposals for maps come back, it’s difficult to gauge the outcome of the process.