Thursday, January 18, 2018
Opinion

Pasco's cities should consolidate elections for higher voter turnout

Nobody ever said the city of Port Richey is conventional.

Filling the city's mayoral vacancy presents an opportunity for it and other Pasco municipalities to study how to bolster participatory democracy. Though final approval awaits, the four-member City Council indicated Monday a preference to fill the mayor's job during the Aug. 14 statewide primary.

A "no-brainer,'' said council member Terry Rowe. Agreed. It spares the city the roughly $4,000 cost of holding a special election. The job became vacant when Richard Rober resigned in late March in advance of a federal charge of income tax fraud.

Besides, voters cast just 78 ballots, a less than 5 percent turnout, in last week's Port Richey election that featured a single, irrelevant referendum on terms in office. So, an August election date should also provide an important by-product — the potential for greater voter turnout by piggy-backing on a ballot that will include high-profile primary contests for sheriff, County Commission, school superintendent and other offices. At least that would be a reasonable assumption.

Reasonable but inaccurate.

Two years ago, Port Richey's April election drew 433 votes, 23 percent turnout, to fill three council seats. The August primary attracted only 400 Port Richey voters. The 2008 election season? Ditto. That year, Port Richey's municipal contest in April recorded 609 votes. Turnout dropped by more than half that August when just 285 ballots were cast.

In other words, more than twice as many people in Port Richey voted for City Council than voted for nonpartisan races like Pasco County School Board and judges or to select their parties' nominees for federal and countywide offices. It certainly affirms Tip O'Neil's logic that "all politics is local."

I'm not suggesting a contested mayoral race in Port Richey will draw less than 78 votes come August. Far from it. If nothing else, the past results indicate Port Richey's mayor's race — if there is, in fact, a contested election — would help the turnout for other offices on the August ballot. Consider that a case of the tail wagging the dog.

To really stimulate turnout, Port Richey and other Pasco cities should reconsider their attachment to an April voting date for their municipal elections.

The underwhelming turnout across the city elections last week defuses the original motivation for the spring municipal ballots. Advocates feared the local races for mayor and councils were overshadowed by federal and state offices at the top of the ballot. But when 95 percent of the voters skip the city election, as was the case in New Port Richey last week, the municipal races aren't overshadowed. They're stuck in the back of a dark closet.

This is not a new idea. Former Zephyrhills City Manager Steve Spina pushed for a change in the election dates in 2008 after turnout in that city was just 8.5 percent. Spina pitched the idea to the Municipal Association of Pasco, where city representatives asked for more information but never took action.

That was unfortunate because Zephyrhills provided an unintentional case study on the benefits of moving the election date just a few months later. In April 2008, the city election drew 618 voters to the polls when four candidates sought a single council seat. Zephyrhills, however, had another vacancy to fill a few months later when a council member resigned to attend law school.

The result of choosing a council member at the same time voters decided who would win the White House brought a 700 percent increase in turnout. Combined, three council candidates accumulated more than 4,400 votes in the general election.

You want to curb voter apathy? Start by taking advantage of the existing November elections dates that also feature heavy turnout during early voting and vote-by-mail.

Perhaps this can be an issue for Zephyrhills' new eager beaver mayor Steve Van Gorden, who doubles as the high school principal and president-elect of the Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce. The mayor's race was the only contest on the Zephyrhills ballot and it drew 536 votes, or a 7.3 percent turnout, last week.

It would be a worthwhile civics exercise. Instead of endorsing the status quo of largely ignored local elections, Pasco's cities should follow the path to a seven-fold increase in voter participation.

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