Studying the Promise of Higher Turnout

Under The Hood

Since a Sarasota campaign gathered enough signatures to put the “Decide The Date” referendum on the November ballot, city voters soon will make a critical decision that could alter the dynamic of local elections. Frankly, it’s about time this contentious issue appeared as a referendum so the two sides can settle a long-time debate. We can expect each camp to offer emotional appeals about voter suppression and making it more expensive to run. But the core principle at stake boils down to one data point: Turnout.

I compiled precinct-by-precinct turnout for 15 elections in Sarasota over the past six years (precincts were redrawn and numbered in mid-2012 making an apples-to-apples comparison difficult any further back). I’ve included every election in which voters citywide could participate; the only exceptions are the City Commission election in 2015 when District 1 Commissioner Willie Shaw ran unopposed so a third of city voters had nothing to vote on in March and the last presidential primary that was open only to registered Republicans and Democrats. For this analysis, I’ve carved out only Sarasota city precincts and calculated turnout for that set of registered voters.

City commission races by themselves don’t drive turnout nearly as high as elections to decide president or governor, which I doubt shocks anyone. A City Commission runoff in 2017, for example, drew out a rather high percentage of voters by city standards, but turnout was still less than a third that of the presidential races in 2016 or 2012 and less than half that of the Florida gubernatorial election in 2014. That’s not to say the contest doesn’t inspire voters. Special elections held to extend a school tax in Sarasota County draw a lower turnout of voters, and charter amendments in May of 2015 drew miniscule turnout in city District 1.

Parts of the city experience a greater voter disparity than others. Anyone wondering why the NAACP endorsed moving the election need look no further than turnout in the Newtown precincts, 115 and 123. City elections typically drag out 10 percent of voters or less in these areas, but presidential elections draw upward of 60 percent of Newtown voters, and the gubernatorial contest four years ago inspired around 40 percent to cast ballots. Participation in Newtown may never approach that of affluent voters on Bird Key, whose Precinct 213 usually produces the highest turnout anywhere in the city, but the disparity proves greater the lower profile an election.

Yet, there’s also important information that undercuts some of Decide the Date’s hopes, notably in August elections. While the cry of “moving elections to November” will likely emblazon much of the campaign’s literature, this referendum would move city commission races to coincide with the state primary anytime more than two candidates qualify. Historically, that happens most of the time. Runoffs in those cases will be held in November.

But voters in Sarasota don’t turn out in the same numbers for August contests. In fact, fewer voters came out for the primary election than the peak city election in two of the last three election cycles. Why? I presume it’s because the most high-profile contests are usually primaries for governor or senator, where only voters registered for the appropriate party can vote, even though there have been races every cycle for school board and judge open to all Sarasota County voters. City elections would not have a party requirement either, but will face the same obstacles as other nonpartisan races as far as voter education.

To me, potential for higher turnout in city elections conquers all counterpoints, but this question becomes more complicated the more data gets explored. Fortunately, voters have a specific question in front of them this fall, and lots of time to dig into numbers.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ Media Group.

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