What Will Single Member Districts Really Mean?

Under The Hood

Among the litany of issues Sarasota County voters consider this year will be whether to switch to single-member districts when electing county commissioners. It’s fairly easy to see why this inspires sharp partisan divide. Democrats lament no one from the blue team has won a seat on the commission since 1966. Republicans, well, they don’t see a problem with that.

But what could single-member districts truly mean down the road? I see a lot of good myself, mostly getting members to focus on regional concerns and therefore developing political diversity. But I’m not so sure the most enthusiastic supporters hold a realistic view what will occur. Taking a hard look at the make-up of districts today further demonstrates that.

For example, the Sarasota Democratic Party backs this amendment on the hope more—really any—Democrats will be elected. But registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in only one commission district today, and not by much.

Put it this way. Under the current system, District 1 Commissioner Mike Moran must run for re-election in two years countywide, where 42 percent of voters are Republican and 31 percent are Democrats. With single-member voting, he runs in a smaller district that’s 38-percent Democrat and 37-percent Republican. I can guess which he prefers, but a 1-point partisan disadvantage hardly destroys the incumbent.

Now, if it’s an open-seat, Democrats may gain more. In 2016, Moran lost the District 1 vote by 488 votes to Democrat Fredd Atkins, despite winning countywide by nearly 36,000 votes. That correlates closely to the 455-voter gap between Democrats and Republicans registered there today. With all other things equal, Democrats could claim an advantage and win one spot on the commission.

But that would be it based on math alone. In every other district, Republicans hold a 10-percent edge or greater.

I know both District 2 candidate Ruta Jouniari and District 4 candidate Wesley Beggs, the Democratic nominees this year, favor single-member districts. These candidates know the prohibitive costs and logistical challenges of running countywide. Certainly a smaller district might ease that pain. But it won’t make victory less of an uphill challenge.

For Jouniari, it might help in her battle with Republican candidate Christian Ziegler, but not by much. Republicans in District 2 hold a 10-point advantage, compared to an 11-point edge countywide. Not a huge improvement. For Beggs, who battles incumbent Alan Maio in District 4, a switch to single member districts could prove disastrous. Republicans hold a 15-point lead there. Democrats like to say Maio has no accountability to the District now, but then the incumbent this year won his Republican primary in District 4 with 6,369 votes to party challenger Lourdes Ramirez’s 3353 votes.

Those favoring reform, of course, say outcomes could change when elections focus just on district voters. The Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections claims costs will be reduced by 80 percent. I always scratch my head at that. TV ads in the market will cost the same. There will be less mail costs, sure. But if people believe commissioners now listen only to developer money, why believe that money won’t still be given to candidates and go even further in a smaller district? It’s likely the well-funded candidates will receive the same dollars, and they too will enjoy reduced election costs.

One final note. This analysis works from the districts as they exist today. The decennial redistricting means little outside residency requirements not, but if a Republican-majority commission wanted to erase a Democratic advantage in District 1, it’s easier there than anywhere else. Thanks to growth in South County, Districts 1 and 2 will need to expand in footprint soon. If commissioners get elected by district, the fight over those lines will become a high-stakes battle quickly.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ Media Group.

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