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Is it time for Clearwater to change its election system?

Some say ranked choice voting is the way to go, but that system would have to be certified by the state first.
Randy McKinney, of Clearwater, holds "I Voted" stickers moments after casting his ballot at the Supervisor of Elections Office in Clearwater during early voting in October 2020. This year, Clearwater leaders are considering asking voters if they want to change the way City Council members are selected.
Randy McKinney, of Clearwater, holds "I Voted" stickers moments after casting his ballot at the Supervisor of Elections Office in Clearwater during early voting in October 2020. This year, Clearwater leaders are considering asking voters if they want to change the way City Council members are selected. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 2

Earlier this year, most Clearwater City Council members said they want to ask residents in a referendum whether the city should transform its elections.

Under the current plurality system, the candidate with the most votes in a race wins. That can result in officials being elected without a majority, like how council member Mark Bunker beat four opponents last year for Seat 2 with 27 percent of the ballots cast.

Hoyt Hamilton
Hoyt Hamilton

Council member Hoyt Hamilton noted Bunker’s margin when he raised the need for a change to a majority system earlier this year. At the time, the council did not have an appetite to create runoffs like Tampa, which requires the top two vote-getters in a race without a majority winner to square off in a general election, a more expensive endeavor for candidates and cities.

“I still believe runoffs are the right thing,” Hamilton said in an interview. “It costs more money, but guess what? If you’re going play, these are the rules. I think every election should show a clear winner.”

At its work session Monday, the City Council is scheduled to discuss another option: whether to place a referendum on the March ballot asking residents about adopting a system where voters rank candidates in order of preference instead of picking one.

Under ranked choice voting, now used in 22 jurisdictions across the U.S., if no candidate earns more than 50 percent, the person with the fewest votes is eliminated and that candidate’s ballots are redistributed to their voters’ second-choice candidates. The reallocation is continued until a candidate has a majority.

Before Clearwater could use such a system, however, it would need to be certified by the state.

Secretary of State Laurel Lee has said 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, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The nonprofit Rank My Vote Florida has argued that prohibition does not apply to municipal elections.

In 2007, Sarasota became the first city in Florida to adopt ranked choice voting. But the city has been unable to implement it for 14 years because the state has not certified the software needed to operate the system.

The Sarasota City Commission this month agreed to seek a court judgment on ranked choice voting but later decided to pause that endeavor while it further examines the issue, the Herald-Tribune reported.

Along with the 22 jurisdictions with ranked choice voting in place, another 28 are projected to use the system in their next election or the following one, according to advocacy group FairVote.

“This is the fastest growing election reform in the country right now,” senior research analyst Deb Otis said. “We elect leaders that aren’t necessarily the choice of the majority of the voters. We need a system that incentivizes candidates to engage with the broadest base of voters, not just one base.”

During a presentation to the council in April on various election systems, Scott Paine, director of leadership development and education for the Florida League of Cities, said ranked choice voting eliminates the need for a runoff election. However, he said there may not be enough data yet to confirm it gets rid of negative campaigning.

If Florida certifies the process, there would be some further local steps. Municipalities contract with the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections to conduct city elections using county equipment and expertise.

If ranked choice voting is cleared by the state, Pinellas County would not be required by law to automatically accommodate the software, said Dustin Chase, deputy supervisor of elections.

“We haven’t explored the possibility of using our current Election Systems & Software equipment in this manner, because it is not certified for this use in the State of Florida,” Chase said.

On Wednesday, Beth Rawlins, a Clearwater-based political consultant, wrote an email to the city suggesting ranked choice voting is a better alternative to Clearwater’s plurality system because “its methodology does produce an eventual winner with some level of support from more than 50 percent of the electorate.”

But since the system is not permitted in Florida, Rawlins said the city should provide a solution in the meantime.

Clearwater-based political consultant Beth Rawlins speaks in 2018 against a proposal to institute a strong mayor system in the city. Now, with Clearwater considering a different governance change, she favors getting rid of the system that elects City Council members by plurality.
Clearwater-based political consultant Beth Rawlins speaks in 2018 against a proposal to institute a strong mayor system in the city. Now, with Clearwater considering a different governance change, she favors getting rid of the system that elects City Council members by plurality. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]

Rawlins urged the council to pose two referendum questions to voters in March: one asking whether to adopt ranked choice voting when it is certified by the state and a second for a two-election system until then.

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote during the regular March elections, the top two vote-getters should appear on a ballot in June, Rawlins said.

Rawlins estimated that holding this June runoff would cost the city about $130,000 every two years.

“I think that’s money well spent to preserve representative government,” Rawlins wrote.