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Is the way Clearwater runs its City Council elections good for democracy?

Unlike St. Petersburg and Tampa, Clearwater’s elected leaders don’t have to win a majority of votes — just the most votes. But how democratic is that?

CLEARWATER — The candidate who gets the most votes wins. That’s how elections are supposed to work. That’s how the three Clearwater City Council races set for Tuesday will be decided.

Is that the best way to do it?

If it seems like a silly question, consider that there are 13 candidates running for three council seats. There are five candidates running for one of the seats and four running in each of the other two races.

That means one or more Clearwater City Council candidates could take power in Tampa Bay’s third-largest city without winning a majority of votes. Instead, they could win with less than 50 percent — maybe far less. And if it’s a low turnout election, how democratic is that?

Tampa and St. Petersburg don’t do it that way. Each city has a runoff system that ensures no candidate can be elected mayor or to the city council with anything less than an outright majority.

Related: VOTER'S GUIDE: Where the candidates for Clearwater mayor, City Council stand on nine issues

Former Clearwater City Council Member Bill Jonson said his city’s elections are so packed this year that any candidate who prevails with just a plurality of votes might enter office without much of a governing mandate from voters.

“When you’re in office, and you are making decisions, you really want the will of the people to be behind you,” said Jonson, who is running for mayor, also known as council Seat 1 in Clearwater’s city manager system.

It’s entirely possible a majority of citizens won’t see their preferred candidate take over the mayor’s seat being vacated by the term-limited George Cretekos. Four candidates are running: nature rights advocate Elizabeth “Sea Turtle” Drayer; former mayor Frank Hibbard; Jonson and small business owner Morton Myers.

The race for Seat 2 is even more crowded. Scientology critic Mark Bunker; downtown business owner Lina Teixeira, athletic event company owner Michael Mannino, retired Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office technical supervisor Eliseo Santana and attorney Bruce Rector are all running for the open spot on the council.

Related: Clearwater robocall sounds like it’s from Scientology. Republicans did it.

In recent years there has been no strong push to add runoffs to the Clearwater election system. Such a move would require changing the City Charter, which can only done by a popular referendum.

But some candidates in Tuesday’s elections say they would prefer runoffs. Insurance brokerage firm owner Bud Elias, who’s seeking to unseat incumbent Bob Cundiff in the Seat 3 race, is among them.

“I think that would be a much more fair way of doing it,” Elias said.

Jonson said he likes the idea of a ranked choice voting system, in which voters rank their top choices in order instead of just choosing one.

For instance, in this year’s Seat 3 race, a voter would rank the four candidates — Cundiff, Elias, retired teacher Kathleen Beckman and human resources professional Scott Thomas — from most preferred to least preferred.

If one candidate gets a majority of first-place votes, the race would be over. If not, the candidate with the least first-place votes would be eliminated in the first “round,” and their votes would be redistributed to the second choices made by their voters. Then the process would repeat until a candidate has won a majority of voters who preferred them over the others. All of this would happen as votes are counted on election night.

Related: Clearwater election could clinch — or kill — downtown amphitheater

Jonson said ranked choice voting offers the benefits of runoffs without the expense of multiple city elections.

However, moving to a ranked choice voting system would require a massive voter education effort, said David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Jack Santucci, an assistant teaching professor of politics at Drexel University in Philadelphia, studies elections and ranked choice voting. He said there’s nothing inherently wrong with a minority of voters choosing Clearwater’s elected leaders.

“I don’t see it as a negative,” Santucci said. “I see it as an indication the people in the city don’t agree on the direction the city should go in.”

Runoff systems have flaws, too, Santucci argued. For example, voters often fail to turn out consistently between two elections in the same year. Last year’s Tampa mayoral race saw a nine percent rise in turnout between the primary and the runoff, or about 4,500 more votes.

One other system that has been discussed in political science circles is “approval voting,” in which voters simply list every candidate they find acceptable. Voters can list as many candidates as they want. The candidate with the most approval wins.

But Kimball noted that unlike ranked choice or runoff voting, approval voting has had very little testing in American elections.

“There’s no perfect voting system,” Kimball said.

Related: Climate change is also on the ballot in Clearwater’s election

Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne, who implements the policies passed by the five-person council, noted that under the current highest-vote-total-wins system, candidates who offer similar appeal can split the electorate, opening the door for a third candidate who doesn’t represent the voters’ consensus.

“I think people kind of acknowledge that it does create an opportunity for some people to win that might not exist if you have different criteria,” Horne said.

Some candidates said they have too much on their minds after six long months of official campaigning to worry about the system.

At this point, to some, even the thought of a hypothetical runoff seems exhausting.

“If someone wins by five votes," Teixeira said, "so be it.”

2020 CLEARWATER CITY ELECTIONS

City voters will decide three City Council races and six ballot referendums. Here’s what voters need to know:

MAYOR/SEAT 1 PREVIEW: Policy, not rancor, drives race for Clearwater mayor

SEAT 2 PREVIEW: Once unspoken, Scientology at forefront of Clearwater City Council’s Seat 2 race

SEAT 3 PREVIEW: Who’s listening? Clearwater City Council Seat 3 candidates all say they are.

REFERENDUM QUESTIONS: Clearwater’s six election referendum questions, explained

ELECTION DAY: March 17. Polls open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. To find your polling station, go to votepinellas.com.

VOTER’S GUIDE: The Tampa Bay Times asked the 13 candidates to respond to nine questions. Here’s where they stand on the issues.

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