No. 1 with a Bullet

Under The Hood


Bullet votes will fly in Sarasota Tuesday. No, that's not a reason to believe violence will mar the city election, but an antiquated system for choosing at-large commissioners will once again make voters question if they should cast just one vote in a city election allowing them to vote for two.

The practice, referred to as bullet-voting, gets decried each cycle because many voters inevitably throw half their democratic power away. Sarasotans get the chance to select two of five city commissioners, but to vote for only one of eight candidates running would mean letting one seat be filled without your say. Good government types rightly decry this as a failure to fully participate in democracy. The problem with that argument, though, is bullet-voting is good politics.

Any candidate who votes for their opponent remains a fool. That seems obvious in a head-to-head election where only the top vote-getter earns any spoils. Yet, the truism seems less clear when a second-place finisher wins the same prize as the winner.

Since Sarasota adopted this election format in the ‘80s, nobody ever won a majority outright in the initial at-large city race, and unless there’s a cycle where only three or four candidates run, it’s unlikely to ever happen. On Tuesday, eight candidates for all practical purposes will run for three spots in the May runoff.

So campaigns eventually come to the realization that the best vote is the lonely vote. Four years ago, 20.51 percent of voters elected to vote for only one candidate out of six running. In the May runoff, 32.62 percent made the same decision and voted for only one of three candidates still in the race.

Of course, being the candidate with the most bullet votes doesn’t guarantee victory. Indeed, Commissioner Suzanne Atwell turned out to be top vote-getter in the May 2015 election by virtue of being second choice for most voters backing either of her opponents. Not every vote comes from die-hard supporters.

That said, voters who do feel passionately about one candidate would be wise to vote for him or her and no one else. Why? How will it feel to see your top choice come in fourth while a lukewarm candidate proceeds to the runoff on the strength of your second vote? Maybe you have two candidates you love equally, in which case, cast two votes, but know it’s quite likely only one candidate will proceed.

Does this churn your political science-loving insides? Don’t hate the candidate, hate the game. Campaigns exist for the sole purpose of getting individual candidates elected. Governing may be a team sport, but elections are solo exhibitions. The problem isn’t a pol encouraging you to cast one vote. It’s the ridiculous city charter provision that delivers two championships for a single event. Politicians who don’t account for the dynamics of this race do so at their own peril, like runners who insist on using outer lanes to go around curves while everyone else vies for the inside track.

Combining the contests for two seats changes the nature of debate. Candidates won’t sharpen their contrasts with one another, even in a community known for rigorous and rancorous debate, because they covet unserious voters’ second selections. A Charter Review Committee in 2010 recommended the city dispose of this system, but a long-disproven theory that this at-large system would empower minorities convinced the commission at the time to take no action.

This Tuesday, there will likely be three candidates who come out on top. Don’t be surprised to see No. 1 to get there with a bullet.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ Media Group.

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