A Surprising Bullet Breakdown

Under The Hood


In some ways, the Sarasota City Commission election this week played out very similarly to the first contest in March. The same two candidates came out on top, though flip-flopped in order, and the third-place finisher came in third. But a closer look at the figures shows how energy and intensity shifted over the last two months to turn a solid lead by winners into an absolute rout. And make no mistake, the election held Tuesday was a landslide, with Hagen Brody and Jennifer Ahearn-Koch winning respectively with the highest and second highest number of votes ever tallied in a Sarasota City Commission contest.

Even after seeing those totals, I must admit, I still presumed third-place finisher Martin Hyde would boast the most loyal vote base even if his supporters were so small in number that he could not win. So it came as a surprise to me when I learned that, unlike during the election in March, he did not have the highest total of bullet votes in the May election.

Let me provide some background on the bullet concept for the uninitiated. Sarasota, in determining who fills two at-large seats on the city commission, allows voters to select two candidates out of a field. But if voters only want to vote for one candidate and forfeit their other vote, they can do so. The practice, commonly called bullet or single-shot voting, is wise if you have one favored candidate you badly want elected. I don't particularly like this system, but it does provide politicos an interesting metric for measuring candidate enthusiasm afterward.

It’s how we could tell in March that Marin Hyde made it into the runoff based entirely on the strength of his dedicated bullet voters. Then, 426 of his 1,877 votes were single shots, a higher number than any other candidate in the field of eight could claim. On Tuesday, he boosted his votes, including bullets, and of the 3,117 votes Hyde received, 895 were single shots. It made sense such a high percentage of his supporters favored him exclusively; he was the only Republican in the race and ran almost on the promise he wouldn’t play nice with others.

But he wasn’t the leader in intensity. Ahearn-Koch, who had a remarkably low number of bullet votes in March considering she was the highest vote getter overall, ended up with more single shots than Hyde or Brody this time around. The 902 bullet votes show that while she dropped from first to second-place in totals, her core of dedicated voters could meet and in fact exceed those for Hyde.

The other interesting factor here was that Brody, who had the second highest number of bullet votes in March with 305 single shots, ended up with the least here, with 702 single shots. It’s the second at-large election in a row, following Suzanne Atwell’s win in 2013, where the top vote getter had the softest support. But as I said then, this sort of election system rewards the consensus candidate who has the broadest support, not necessarily the fiercest.

None of this should truly shock. The lead for Brody and Ahearn-Koch in the end proved so large that had every voter backing either candidate stayed home on Election Day, the two would still have won on the strength of early and absentee voter support. Of course Hyde trailed in many indicators; he lost.

What’s this all mean? I expect that will dominate discussion at the next Where The Votes Are event at SRQ headquarters, which will be held May 23. 

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