Clearwater explores adopting ranked-choice voting system

The council will vote later this year on whether to place a referendum on the March ballot about changing the elections system.
Council member Mark Bunker during a Clearwater City Council meeting Monday, April 12, 2021 at the Clearwater Main Library.
Council member Mark Bunker during a Clearwater City Council meeting Monday, April 12, 2021 at the Clearwater Main Library. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published June 5, 2021

CLEARWATER — When City Council member Mark Bunker ran for office last year on a platform of standing up to the Church of Scientology, he said he didn’t expect support, or donations, from the business community and unions.

With a modest campaign budget, he beat four opponents with 27 percent of ballots cast, all that he needed in Clearwater’s winner-take-all plurality system. As the city ponders a change to its election system, Bunker said the existing structure allows candidates like himself to have a voice.

“Folks who do not have a lot of money but have passion are at a great disadvantage and thankfully my passion won the day,” Bunker said.

Earlier this year, Council member Hoyt Hamilton proposed the city move to a majority-win structure. In April, the council listened to a presentation from Scott Paine, director of leadership development and education for the Florida League of Cities about the different forms of voting.

On Thursday, the council voted 4-1 for city attorney Pam Akin to craft language for a referendum for voters to decide whether to adopt ranked-choice voting. Bunker voted no.

Ranked-choice voting asks voters to number candidates in order of preference rather than picking one winner. In the event that no candidate receives 50 percent or more, the person with the fewest votes is eliminated and that candidate’s ballots are redistributed to their voters’ second-choice candidates and so on.

The council will have to vote on the final language by December in order for it to be placed on the March ballot.

Thursday’s discussion cracked open debates about diversity, the influence of money in campaigns, representation and the “good ole boy” network in Clearwater.

Hamilton said he proposed the change in March because until last year, when 13 candidates ran for three seats, few candidates ran for City Council, making it more likely to earn 50 percent or more votes in a plurality system. He expects another crowded field next year, when two seats are open, increasing the likelihood more candidates will be elected with less than 50 percent of the vote.

“I think the people of Clearwater deserve to have people sitting here that get the majority of the vote,” Hamilton said.

If Clearwater residents vote to adopt ranked-choice voting in March, it would take effect in 2024. But that is only if the state allows it.

According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee said in 2019 that state law doesn’t allow ranked-choice voting because candidates are required to receive the highest number of votes cast in a general or special election in order to win.

In 2007, Sarasota became the first city in the state to adopt ranked-choice voting when residents passed a referendum supporting the measure by 77.6 percent. But the city is still unable to implement the system 14 years later because state officials have said the system conflicts with the Florida constitution.

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“If it is not allowed when it’s approved by the citizens, then we’ll wait until it is allowed and I think with time and pressure it will become available to us and I think we can expedite that process,” Mayor Frank Hibbard said.

Hibbard said ranked-choice voting would be less costly than a majority system, which requires the top two candidates in a race to move to a runoff. He said Clearwater could be a leader in Florida by adopting ranked-choice voting and advocating state leaders to greenlight the system for the city and other communities.

“I do think it’s important that we get a better consensus on who the representatives are for our city,” Hibbard said.

Hamilton dismissed what is referred to as the influence of the “good ole boy” club in city politics because “you’re basically talking about the business leaders of this community, people that are successful” who “are willing to support candidates that they know have the right mind-set for them.”

He said he advocates for diversity in thought, not to aim to select candidates based on race or gender.

Council member Kathleen Beckman noted systematic racism has prevented minorities from developing the generational wealth to be able to afford to run for office or fund campaigns. She advocated for the city to explore the creation of districts, to replace the five at-large seats, so candidates could run less expensive campaigns in smaller areas.

With low voter turnout, she noted no candidate is actually elected by the majority of residents.

“We need to be clear about who put us up here because it’s a really small number of voters,” Beckman said. “It’s not a majority of the residents and it’s not a majority, necessarily, of registered voters. We need to do better with that.”

As of last month, two states, one county and 49 cities are poised to implement ranked-choice voting systems, according to FairVote, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for election reform.

Bunker said he is worried that adding a new structure will drive more voters away from a system that already needs more participation and diversity. The “good ole boy” system, he said.

“I don’t think this is a problem that really needs to be solved this way,” Bunker said.