Seidman: Save single-member districts on March 8
Several commissioners have said they don’t believe voters understood what they were voting for back then and are offering this gesture to set things right. That’s patronizing at the very least, if not downright arrogant. But if they truly believe it, how can they justify the convoluted and prejudicial phrasing of this question on the ballot, which seems designed to confuse voters?
Carrie Seidman: Columnist, Herald Tribune 2.13.22 Most, if not all, Sarasota County residents are aware a special election is coming up March 8, for which voting by mail has already begun. With just two questions on the ballot, it may not seem critical to exercise your civic responsibility, particularly since the first – a renewal of the widely-popular 1-mill school district tax – is a pretty sure shoo-in.
(Even if you’re old, cranky and have no grandchildren, voting against kids is bad form.)
But the second referendum – a move to overturn the 'single-member district' election of county commissioners (which voters approved by more than 60% in 2018) and reinstate countywide election of all commissioners – could alter the outcome of the decisions most important to you and your neighbors.
And despite the plethora of press that’s appeared on the subject already, there seems to be some confusion (surely it’s not deliberate obfuscation?) about what this change would mean. So with apologies to those of you already well-schooled in the cunning ways of our elected officials, here’s a primer:
Sarasota County has five geographical electoral districts; anyone vying for a commission seat is required to reside in the district in which she or he runs. Single-member districts means voters choose a single candidate from their 'home' district, similar to how we elect our state and national representatives. (That’s how you know whose office to call in Tallahassee or Washington, D.C., when you get a bee in your bonnet.)
Countywide voting means regardless of where you (or they) live, you vote for all five commissioners.
On the surface, countywide voting sounds logical. More choices and more votes must equal more responsiveness to your concerns, right? Alas, that’s not how it plays out.
As corporate and political action committee money has increasingly corrupted a genuinely democratic vote, countywide voting allows those with deep pockets and special interests – I didn’t say 'developers,'
said 'developers' – to unduly influence the outcome of commission races. Elected commissioners become beholden to their contributors rather than their constituents and less willing to advocate for the specific concerns of their 'home' district.
Ask yourself this: Why, since it has been mandated for 50-plus years that commissioners live in the district from which they are elected, should 80% of their constituents live somewhere else? That’s like having Californians choose Florida’s governor. (Though, come to think of it, right now that might not be such a bad idea…)
Anyone upset over unchecked and ill-planned growth in Sarasota – and I know many of you, both Republicans and Democrats, are, because I hear from you – should be asking themselves why current commissioners immediately rejected voters’ approval of single-member districts. Or why they rushed to overturn that decision by forcing this question onto the ballot for a low-turnout special election where as few as 35,000 voters may participate (as opposed to the 116,000 who cast a ballot four years ago).
Several commissioners have said they don’t believe voters understood what they were voting for back then and are offering this gesture to set things right. That’s patronizing at the very least, if not downright arrogant. But if they truly believe it, how can they possibly justify the convoluted and prejudicial phrasing of this question on the ballot, which seems deliberately designed to confuse voters?
Stated clearly, it should read: 'Do you wish to retain voting for a single commissioner representing your own district, as presently exists, as opposed to instituting countywide voting for all commission seats?' That would require a 'yes' to retain single-member districts and a 'no' to choose countywide voting.
Instead, it reads:
'Shall each member of the Board of County Commissioners be elected county-wide, thereby allowing voters to vote for all five County Commissioners as each office comes up for election, rather than voters only being able to elect a single County Commissioner from the district in which the voter resides as presently exists…'
Not only is this a linguistic mess, using a word like 'only' – which implies 'less than' – is leading and biased.
My concerns are twofold: First, that because this is a spring election with just two items on the ballot, many of you won’t think it’s worth the effort to vote. And second that, thanks to the ballot language and misleading party messaging, this time people may really not understand what they’re voting for.
For example, I just received an email from someone clearly in favor of single-member districts urging me to vote 'yes,' when in fact, her argument required a 'no.' Someone else told me her friend had sent in his mail-in ballot with 'a yes to preserve single-member districts' and was distraught when told he’d inadvertently done just the opposite.
Wherever you stand, we’re all on the precipice of determining Sarasota’s future. The Sarasota County Commission will have enormous influence over the quality of life in your neighborhood for years to come. Having an informed, responsive and accountable commissioner who knows and shares your concerns about the issues in your district will be invaluable.
Feb. 26 is the last day to request a mail-in ballot and the first day of early voting. Please vote, and understand the issue and the ballot language so you can make an informed choice. Then, don’t let anyone – least of all a county commissioner – suggest that you didn’t know what you were voting for.
Contact columnist Carrie Seidman at firstname.lastname@example.org or (505) 238-0392.