The NAACP’s local organization has endorsed an initiative aimed at letting voters in the city of Sarasota decide whether to change their election schedule. The endorsement provides a boost to the effort and should help alleviate some concerns about the proposal's potential impacts on minority voters.
Sarasota has long conducted stand-alone elections in March, with frequent runoffs in May, in odd-numbered years. Voter participation has consistently been low.
The Decide the Date Campaign, launched last month, is attempting to get 3,700 certified signatures on petitions intended to force the city to ask voters whether they would prefer a schedule based on the November general elections in even-numbered years. Those elections include high-profile races such as the presidency and governorship as well as state and county contests.
Voter turnout in November general elections rises across the board. Most relevant to the NAACP's endorsement of the initiative is that, according to the campaign's analysis of data provided by the supervisor of elections office, African-Americans in Sarasota participated in general elections at significantly higher rates than in the city's March and May elections. The same can be said for Hispanics.
Trevor D. Harvey, president of the Sarasota County Branch of the NAACP, told us that the organization's membership supports the initiative for a simple reason: "Voter turnout and participation are higher in November. As a group that tries to get more people to register and vote, why would we not be involved in something like this?"
Harvey said the NAACP has long wanted to have the proposed change put to voters. However, City Commission majorities time and again have refused.
City voters deserve an opportunity to decide such a fundamental question of self-governance.
Suzanne Atwell, a Democrat who served on the City Commission from 2009 to 2017, and Larry Eger, a Republican who has been the public defender since 2008, are leading the Decide the Date Campaign — a welcome sign of bipartisanship.
The proposed ballot initiative, if approved by a majority of voters, would ensure that either the commission election or a runoff will occur in November, when turnout generally ranges between 50 percent and 80 percent.
Sarasota’s City Commission has three members elected only by voters residing in one of three districts. (City Commission elections are nonpartisan, at least to the extent that the party affiliations of candidates don’t appear on the ballot.)
According to the proposal, if two candidates run for a district seat, they would face off in November. If three or more candidates file for a district seat, the first round of voting would be conducted in conjunction with primaries for county and state offices, normally in August; the top two vote-getters would compete in a runoff on the November general election ballot.
The commission also has two at-large seats; those elections are conducted simultaneously, with all candidates in the same pool. The proposed change states that, if four or more people run for the at-large seats, they will participate in a first election that coincides with the primaries. The three candidates with the most primary votes would advance to a runoff in November.