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Issue #38: Sarasota Referendum on Single-Member Districts is Tuesday
How to elect a county commission
As Florida enters its final weeks of legislative session, Florida’s final redistricting fate is not clear yet. The House and Senate have passed a Congressional plan, which Governor DeSantis has pledged to veto.
However, as we wait for a formal veto and listen to rumblings about an override attempt that may or may not happen, other redistricting news is playing out in Florida. On Tuesday, March 8th, Sarasota will go to the pulls to determine to the future of its county commission districts.
Sarasota’s Move to Single-member Districts
Up until 2018, Sarasota County, a steadily red county with a mix of suburbs and retirement communities, elected its county commissions at-large. In 2018, a referendum easily passed to move the county to single-member districts.
The measure passed with support across voters of both parties. While Democratic pockets in the city of Sarasota were strong for the measure, many of the red suburban and retiree communities also solidly back the measures. The only overwhelming opposition came from one rural precinct in the east end of the county.
After the referendum succeeded, the commission was remapped based to the districts seen below.
This map gave Republicans an advantage that reflected the county’s lean. Four seats would be very likely Republican, while the seat covering the city of Sarasota gave Democrats a steady advantage.
In 2020, the first batch of single-member district elections took place. However, not all of the commission was up. Seats 1, 3, and 5 were up, while 2 and 4 would be up this year. Staggered elections is common, but I always find it bizarre when redistricting doesn’t lead to everyone being up at once. Regardless, since 1, 3 and 5 were more GOP heavy, this led to all three winners being Republican. The commission currently remains 5-0 GOP. That said, District 2 being up in 2022 meant a competitive race for Incumbent Commissioner (last elected at-large in 2018) Christian Ziegler.
In the winter of 2021, the commission redrew its lines to reflect the latest census data. The map largely aimed to be least-change.
There was an effort by Commissioner Ziegler to pass an alternative map that would have weakened the Democratic advantage in district 2. Commissioners rejected this, however, and when they passed the least-change map, Commissioner Ziegler voted against the final map.
Based on current demographic/partisan trends, the map is likely to remain 4-1 GOP for years. Democratic strength in the county is heavily concentrated in the Sarasota City area. Republican advantage in many precincts is not overwhelming but uniform.
District 2 is also the most diverse part of the state. The district is just over 70% white. A minority-performing seat is not feasible in the overwhelmingly white county.
How these districts break down over the last several partisan races can be seen below. The map is pretty steadily 4-1.
So we have a pretty steadily GOP map. The question becomes, why are Republicans trying to get rid of it?
A new Referendum
After the 2018 vote, it was clear the commissioners themselves didn’t like the plan. After all, at-large would mean a guaranteed 5-0 commission for Republicans. Why mess with that? After the Sarasota Charter Review commission opted not to revisit the issue - Commissioners voted in December of 2021 to hold a NEW referendum on the topic. The referendum calls for returning to at-large elections; YES would return to at-large voting. This will be voted on the same day as a scheduled referendum on property tax renewals for the school district.
The referendum has become notably partisan. The Republican Party is encouraging YES votes while the Democratic Party is pushing NO votes.
Independent PACs and orgs have also gotten involved. The biggest money is from Sun Coast Alliance, a committee that has recently received $100,000 from a dark-money group. The Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections Committee has raised around $50,000 as of a few weeks ago and is pushing a NO vote. Read more about the campaign mailers and money here.
The NO campaign money is far more transparent with its finances. As this article highlights, there is a good deal of questions about the dark money funding the YES campaign. On top of that, many of the YES proponents are also those pushing the ludicrous notion that the 2020 election was stolen. The argument from YES proponents is that voters “lost control” when they couldn’t elect every member of the commission anymore.
Sarasota has over 350,000 registered voters. It is my firm believe that counties so large should have either all single-member seats or some mix of single-member and at-large. This is a clear partisan effort disguised in the name of good government.
So where do thing stand? It is hard to say. Right now, Democrats hold a turnout advantage in campaign.
A vast majority of the votes have been by mail. In-person early voting did not generate a good deal of turnout. However, as we have seen with elections as recent as the Duval special election, election day remains a solidly Republican affair.
We should expect the election day vote to be much more Republican. The question is what the final D v R gap looks like. On top of this, how the 10K+ NPA voters cast ballots may be the difference maker. In 2018, many Republicans clearly backed single-member districts. However, in a low-turnout special, it may be that only more YES Republicans show up — guided by partisan motives.
We will have the answer Tuesday night.