Push for March Elections in Sarasota Fails



A city commissioner’s push to move Sarasota’s election to the fall to boost voter turnout stalled as colleagues suggested a lack of public support for a change. 

Commissioner Hagen Brody on Monday raised the issue of rescheduling the elections, saying that the spring cycle in odd years depressed turnout, especially among minorities and young people. He proposed changing elections to an August primary with a November general election, coinciding with gubernatorial elections for district elections and presidential elections for at-large elections. “To me it’s simple,” he said. “We know where the voters are. They vote in November.”

Before the Monday meeting, Brody referenced SRQ’s Where The Votes Are election analysis to note that while all demographic groups see lower turnout in spring races than in November, the black and Hispanic vote see more severe reductions in participation. “I know from my campaign that a lot of the money spent and raised went just to communicating that an election was going on,” he told SRQ.

But the rest of the commission said that system could also result in low turnouts. Commissioner Liz Alpert noted August primaries in Florida have similar turnout as city elections held in March and May. And the possibility exists with district elections in particular of the August race determining the winner, but in an election where turnout gets driven far more by political parties. “Nothing says you can’t come out and vote in March,” Alpert said. “This is not an issue of voter suppression.”

Commissioner Jennifer Ahearn-Koch said this issue has been raised in Sarasota countless times but there’s a reason it’s never landed in front of voters. City commissioners opted against such a move a year and a half ago for similar reasons to those raised Monday, and multiple charter revision citizen petitions shortly before then, that would have changed the elections in a charter revision, failed to win enough signatures to be put on the ballot. “If people want this, get a petition together,” she said, noting citizen measures can always be put on the ballot regardless of commission opinion. Short of that, she did not believe “staff should spend even one minute on this.”

Brody won his seat in May with the highest vote total ever for a city commission candidate (6,371 votes) but in an election with just a 22.86-percent turnout. Ahearn-Koch won a seat in the same election, coming in second (with 5,080 votes, the second-highest total ever) in the at-large election.

The third-place finisher in that race, Martin Hyde, spoke Monday night in favor of moving elections, and said successful candidates, meaning all sitting commissioners, resisted changing a system that got each of them elected. “Denying voters based on your prejudices and opinions is ironic given it's this very system that got you sitting on that side of the table.” he said.

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