Florida’s municipalities intend to fight a proposal now before state lawmakers that would take away their ability to set local election dates and could extend the terms of some current elected officials.
State lawmakers on Thursday will look at a proposal that seeks to improve local voter turnout by requiring every city, town and village to line up their elections the same day each year.
The proposal (PCB SAC 16-04), scheduled to go before the House State Affairs Committee, would require the local elections to either mesh with statewide November general elections in even years, or be held every other year on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in odd years.
Of Florida’s 411 cities, towns and villages, only 151 — including Miami, Pensacola and St. Petersburg — currently hold elections in November.
In Flagler County, Flagler Beach and Bunnell hold their municipal elections in March. (Both have elections next year.) Turnout is usually dismal: just 281 people cast a ballot in Bunnell’s last election, in 2014 (Bunnell has a population of 2,700). Flagler Beach didn’t hold an election as two commissioners (Kim Carney and Marshal Shupe) faced no opposition. The city altered its usual schedule in 2012 so its election could coincide with the presidential primary, thus drawing a turnout of 42 percent, though it was decidedly conservative (there was a GOP primary but not a Democratic one).
Palm Coast used to hold its elections outside the November cycle, on the assumption that it would help the city’s elections stand out and compel voters to pay closer attention to the municipal contests. It merely depressed turnout. Voters in 2011–that is, 10.6 percent of the city’s voters–approved a charter amendment that moved elections to November, to coincide with even-year election cycles. The yes vote for that amendment was 87 percent. The change also extended the tenures of Mayor Jon Netts and Jason DeLorenzo from four years to five. In 2014, the first time Palm Coast’s municipal election coincided with a general, turnout rose in the primary to 19 percent, and to 52 percent in the run-off, which coincided with the general election.
Under the proposed bill, a county supervisor of elections could also set a single annual date for all the municipal elections, something that could keep elections in the spring but may be more easily accomplished in smaller, rural northern counties with fewer municipalities.
A state analysis of the proposal notes the measure won’t impact state finances, but could cost local governments who would have to bring their charters and ordinances in line with the proposal.
David Cruz, assistant general counsel for the Florida League of Cities, said such decisions should be left to the local governments, a principle known as “home rule.” He also said that local issues and contests could get lost on lengthy general election ballots.
“Our municipal officials are very concerned about this,” Cruz said Monday, after the league provided reporters an overview of its priorities for next year’s legislative session.
“They feel that what happens when you have a November election is that a municipal question might fall to the bottom of a ballot,” Cruz said, “There will be voter fall-off from that ballot and they won’t necessary make it to the bottom of the ballot, where you might find a municipal official running for office.”
House State Affairs Committee Chairman Matt Caldwell, who offered the proposal, said he understand the municipalities’ desire for home rule, but disagrees about issues getting lost on a long ballot.
“It’s fictitious to think that ballot-fatigue, with 40-, 50-, 60-percent turnout is going to be less participation than a simple city ballot in an off-time that gets 15-percent turnout,” said Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers.
Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley, president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, said the proposal appears to provide some flexibility, but the issue is a matter between the state and local lawmakers.
“This is more of a policy decision … that probably is an issue between the cities and the Legislature,” Corley said. “Our position is we run the elections; it’s something we do as an administrative function for support to the cities.”
Of the state’s cities, towns and villages, 52, including Coral Gables, Panama City Beach and Orlando, hold local elections in April. Another 113 municipalities, including Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville, hold their council contests in March. A few others ask voters to perform their civic duty in other months.
The proposal, if it becomes law, would go into effect after the 2016 general election.
Cruz acknowledged a number of local governments that voluntarily moved to November elections did so after looking at their turnout numbers, which often are lower when not tied to state and federal contests.
“Not all cities are the same,” Cruz said. “We’d like to have that flexibility for each municipality to go ahead and analyze voter turnout and address that locally rather than being a one-size-fits-all solution coming from the state level.”
Cruz said other concerns about the election date change include forcing municipalities to undergo charter changes — often requiring voter approval — and that the state will be extending the current terms of some locally elected officials. For example, for cities that currently hold elections on both even- and odd-number years, some terms would need to be extended to line up with the bill.
“We’re afraid there will be additional cost associated of implementing the bill at the local level,” Cruz said.
–News Service of Florida and FlaglerLive