Change the Date led to City Listening to More People

Guest Correspondence

The goal of an election should always be to have the highest overall voter turnout possible to elect our leaders. Elected officials should always be answerable to the widest range of voters, and hopefully that includes a diverse electorate.

In 2017, a group of organizations and community leaders got together to solve a problem in the City of Sarasota, low turnout in our off-cycle elections. The city was unnecessarily paying around six figures to have these elections, and a small percentage of people were electing city commissioners. After a refusal of the city commission to voluntarily fix this problem, this group started a citizens initiative called Decide the Date.

Decide the Date was a petition initiative to change the city charter to move the date of elections of city commissioners from March and May of off years to the regular election cycle of even years, with the final election of city commissioners always occurring in November of even years. City Commission elections would be normally held when the most people vote, on regular election cycles with other elected offices.

The groups behind Decide the Date consisted of business leaders, citizen leaders, current and former elected officials, and groups across the political spectrum from the left to the right.  All had the same goal and were unified in wanting the highest voter turnout possible for city elections.   

This petition campaign had to face the very challenging rules of petition initiatives and faced a timing issue of trying to make sure that a vote on this initiative occurred in November of 2018. The group was shocked at the immediate response to the petition campaign, receiving almost 1,000 more valid petitions than needed very quickly. 

After the official certification of the petitions, the city commission was forced to place the initiative on the ballot. It was then that the Decide the Date petition campaign became the Change the Date campaign to advocate for the passage of the charter change with the same group backing the petition campaign, also backing the advocacy campaign.

The response, again, was immediate. There were entire streets filled with Change the Date yard signs. Meanwhile, the small groups that had controlled city hall opposed more people voting and wanted to keep their power.

The voters agreed that more people having a say in elections of city commissioners was important. This translated into the referendum passing with over 63% of the vote. 

The first November election was in 2020. The impact was immediate. Black voter turnout more than doubled and there was a 743% increase in Hispanic participation. This led to the most diverse city commission the city has ever seen, and a new diverse administration. The city began actually dealing with its problems, like affordable housing, instead of ignoring them, for the first time in a long time. Outreach and dialogue with all stakeholders, not just a few groups, on both sides of issues was the new rule.

Today, we see that the same people that opposed a large diverse electorate now complaining about city employees not listening to only them. It is coded as, “Staff is not listening to the people,” when what they really mean is staff is listening to everyone and taking all points of view into account, not just theirs.

While I frequently disagree with staff and administration on many issues, I can say that they are listening and are respectful in their feedback. This is what Change the Date had hoped for, for city government to listen to as many people as possible and not just a select few.

The Argus Foundation congratulates the city for listening not just to us, but to those who disagree with us. It is an important part of government, and we are proud to have been a part of this effort, even when a decision does not go our way.       

Christine Robinson is the executive director of The Argus Foundation.

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