Is it time for Clearwater to change its electoral system?

Earlier this year, most members of the Clearwater City Council said they would go to a referendum to ask residents if the city should change its elections.

According to the current plurality system, the candidate with the most votes in a race wins. This can lead to officials being elected without a majority, such as council member Mark Bunker last year defeating four opponents for seat 2 with 27 percent of the votes cast.

Hoyt Hamilton

Councilor Hoyt Hamilton noted Bunker’s margin when he raised the need for a change to a majority system earlier this year. At the time, the council was reluctant to create runoff elections like Tampa, where the two front-runners would have to compete in a race with no majority winners in a general election, a more expensive proposition for candidates and cities.

“I still believe that runoffs are the right thing to do,” said Hamilton in an interview. “It costs more money, but guess what? When you go to play, these are the rules. I think every election should show a clear winner. “

At its working session on Monday, the city council is due to discuss another option: whether to hold a referendum on the ballot in March, urging residents to put in place a system whereby voters rank candidates by preference rather than picking one .

If no candidate earns more than 50 percent, the person with the fewest votes is eliminated and that candidate’s ballot papers are distributed to the second-choice candidates of his constituents. The redistribution continues until one candidate has a majority.

Before Clearwater could use such a system, however, it would have to be certified by the state.

Secretary of State Laurel Lee has said that state law does not allow ranked voting because candidates must get the highest number of votes cast in a general or special election in order to win Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The non-profit Rank My Vote Florida has argued that the ban does not apply to local elections.

In 2007, Sarasota became the first Florida city to introduce ranked voting. But the city has not been able to implement it for 14 years because the state did not certify the software to operate the system.

The Sarasota City Commission this month agreed to seek a court ruling on the ranked election, but later decided to suspend those efforts while it investigated the issue further Herald grandstand reported.

In addition to the 22 jurisdictions with ranked elections, according to the interest group FairVote, another 28 will use the system in their next or the following election.

“This is the fastest growing electoral reform in the country right now,” said senior research analyst Deb Otis. “We choose leaders who are not necessarily the choice of the majority of voters. We need a system that encourages candidates to work with the widest possible electorate, not just a single one. “

During a presentation to the council in April on various electoral systems, Scott Paine, director of leadership development and training for the Florida League of Cities, said the ranked election eliminates the need for a runoff. However, he said there may not be enough data to confirm that negative campaigns will be eliminated.

Should Florida certify the process, there would be a few more local steps. Parishes contract with the Pinellas County Election Commissioner to conduct city elections using the county’s equipment and expertise.

If the state releases the ranked picks, Pinellas County would not be legally required to automatically deploy the software, said Dustin Chase, deputy head of the polls.

“We have not yet investigated the ability to use our current voting systems and software devices in this way because the state of Florida has not certified them for this use,” said Chase.

On Wednesday, Beth Rawlins, a Clearwater-based policy advisor, emailed the city suggesting that the ranked voting was a better alternative to Clearwater’s plurality system because “its methodology has an eventual winner by some degree Generates level of support greater than 50 percent ”. the voter. “

Since the system is not allowed in Florida, the city should offer a solution in the meantime, said Rawlins.

Clearwater-based policy advisor Beth Rawlins opposed a proposal to establish a strong mayor system in the city in 2018.  Now that Clearwater is considering another change in governance, it favors abolishing the system that elects city council members by majority.
Clearwater-based policy advisor Beth Rawlins speaks out against a proposal to introduce a strong mayoral system in the city in 2018. Now that Clearwater is considering another change in governance, it favors abolishing the system that elects city council members by majority. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]

Rawlins urged the council to put two referendum questions to voters in March: one if the ranked vote should be accepted if it is state certified, and a second for a two-vote system by then.

If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the March regular election, the top two should appear on a poll in June, Rawlins said.

Rawlins estimated that running this runoff election in June would cost the city about $ 130,000 every two years.

“I think this is money well spent to keep representative government,” wrote Rawlins.

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