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City Council mulls big changes to municipal voting

Mark Parker



St. Petersburg City Hall. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

The City of St. Petersburg is considering significant changes to how it conducts elections, to provide early voting options and increase turnout but at the risk of losing insulation from larger partisan races.

During Thursday’s meeting, city council members heard the first reading of a proposed referendum to amend the city charter to align municipal elections currently held during odd-numbered years with the state and nation in even-numbered years. The council first discussed the issue in December of last year after the Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Office declined a request to provide a separate early voting option for St. Petersburg.

In the December meeting, Assistant City Attorney Brett Pettigrew told council members that instituting early voting would cost St. Petersburg over $1 million and essentially require the city to create a parallel election apparatus. Adopting the changes would require St. Petersburg to extend the terms of its elected officials by nearly a year, following a similar measure in 2001 when city leaders received an additional nine months in office to accommodate the move to the current voting cycle.

If approved during a second public hearing on Aug. 4, the amendment to the City Charter will ultimately remain in the hands of voters during a special election Nov. 8.

Many residents and council members favor creating an early voting mechanism that would increase voter turnout for municipal elections. However, there is a growing concern that changing the way St. Petersburg votes could increase partisanship and create unintended consequences.

“I helped lead a group of folks that held a press conference right on these (City Hall) steps,” said Nick Carey, congregation organizer for Faith in Florida, during public comment. “And we worked closely with Councilmember (Darden) Rice … and really what we were looking for was to add early voting to municipal elections.

“We didn’t ask for a change in years of how this is doing – and my biggest concern in moving to even years is that as currently constituted, city elections are somewhat insulated from statewide and national politics.”

Nick Carey, congregation organizer for Faith in Florida, said that while he helped lead the initiative for the city to adopt an early voting mechanism, changing the city’s election system would have unintended consequences. Screengrab.

Carey said the most significant impact stems from introducing partisan primaries into non-partisan city council elections. He noted that while the city holding its elections in conjunction with the larger entities significantly increased voter turnout in 2020, it also created 27 items on the ballot requiring residents’ attention, with city council selections at the bottom of the list.

Councilmember Richie Floyd agreed with the sentiment. He said it is a valid argument to say the tradeoffs are worth increasing voter turnout, but he does not believe the city should implement the changes just to save money on elections.

“I think if you really value the insulation of our elections from the partisanship and the accessibility when it comes to ballot issues, I think it is worth it to spend more money …, ” Floyd said.

Floyd explained that currently, city council candidates advertise their campaigns in conjunction with other people running for office in St. Petersburg. He said the changes would force local candidates to compete for attention with the State Legislature, gubernatorial and even presidential races.

Floyd believes the increased advertising competition will cause individual campaign costs to soar when running for any office is already an expensive endeavor.

“I spent the entire year – I was campaigning, obsessing with how to get people to donate money to me, said Floyd. “And I don’t think that’s a healthy thing for democracy.”

Councilmember Ed Montanari said the public speakers made some good points, and he understands Floyd’s concerns. However, he believes the increased election turnout and cost reduction to the city outweigh the potential negative impacts of the proposed amendment.

Montanari added that while the city council is a non-partisan race, most people know the political affiliation of candidates.

Councilmember Copley Gerdes said that while he was voting to move the proposal to a second hearing, it does not guarantee his support on Aug. 4. Like Floyd, Gerdes said he has community discussions on the issue scheduled in the coming weeks.

“I was a pretty big proponent of this,” said Gerdes. “I haven’t been pulled to the other side yet, but it warrants more conversation.”

Councilmember Brandi Gabbard echoed Gerdes’ sentiments, stating that early voting advocates were the catalyst for moving the proposal forward last year. However, she also wants to protect the non-partisan nature of St. Petersburg’s system and believes more discussion is necessary.

Pettigrew reiterated that while the city buying its own machines and instituting an early voting mechanism “is technically possible, it is realistically impossible.”

Council Chair Gina Driscoll said it is only fair to let residents decide if they would like to keep the current system intact or make the changes to align with other elections. A majority of the city council agreed, voting 5-1 to move the proposal to a second hearing on Aug. 4. If approved during that meeting, it would head to a ballot referendum Nov. 8.

Floyd, who said he was open to changing his mind, voted against the measure, with Councilmembers Deborah Figgs-Sanders and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman absent.

In a separate but related measure, city council members voted unanimously to advance potential changes to residency requirements for council members to accommodate modification of district boundaries through the redistricting process. That measure will also go to a second hearing on Aug. 4 and, if approved, will go on the Nov. 8 ballot.



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    Karen J Douglas

    July 18, 2022at4:31 pm

    Some of the cities around St Pete have already changed their elections to match the National voting stage. While it is true that now it costs more to actually run for city commission or the Mayor’s seat, I fully supported the move due to the increase in voter participation. I researched some figures: roughly 45,000 registered voters in 2006 for Largo FL. With Municipal elections on March 7, only 6086 voters elected the two new commissioners and decided 9 charter questions. Then in the 2020 election held in Nov. we had a local voter turnout of 36,907, out of 55,594 registered. The raise in voter participation is dramatic. That is enough incentive/justification for me.

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