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Clearwater council hesitant to push ranked-choice voting

The council is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to place a referendum on the March ballot for voters to decide whether to change the city’s election system.
Early voters wait in line at the Supervisor of Elections Office at the Pinellas County Courthouse, 315 Court St., on Oct. 19, 2020, in Clearwater.
Early voters wait in line at the Supervisor of Elections Office at the Pinellas County Courthouse, 315 Court St., on Oct. 19, 2020, in Clearwater. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 4

CLEARWATER — The idea to ask residents whether they want to change the city’s election system started in April as a proposal by council member Hoyt Hamilton, but enthusiasm for the idea has waned.

The council is scheduled to vote Thursday on 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.

Cities are not currently allowed to use ranked-choice voting because the Florida Secretary of State has not approved the system. If Clearwater voters were to pass the referendum, the city’s plurality system where the candidate with the most votes wins would remain in place until the state allows the practice.

“Is this an exercise in futility at this point?” Hamilton asked at a Monday work session.

“If it were a legal method, it’s better than what we have now,” Hamilton said. “But there’s so many hoops that have to be jumped through for this to become accepted.”

Related: Is it time for Clearwater to change its election system?

The council voted 4-1 in June to direct city attorney Pam Akin to craft language for a March referendum question about ranked-choice voting. Council member Mark Bunker voted no. On Monday, as Akin presented the proposed ballot language, most council members expressed hesitancy.

Mayor Frank Hibbard said he originally supported the referendum because ranked-choice voting appeared to be a compromise between the status quo and a runoff system, which is more costly for candidates. But Hibbard said after more research, he worries the Legislature could intervene to prevent ranked-choice voting.

“I think even if we get standing and the voters of Clearwater pass ranked-choice voting and all the other tumblers fall into place, I question whether there wouldn’t be a statutory limit put on ranked-choice voting, so that is a concern to me,” Hibbard said.

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 last month agreed to seek a court judgment on ranked-choice voting but later decided to pause and further examine the issue, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported.

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.

On Monday, Akin said she believed it would take litigation from a party with legal standing, like Sarasota, to move ranked-choice voting forward.

Hamilton said he believes a runoff system would be a better option, but he said it is unclear whether that would work. After 2022, the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections would have to hold runoffs in the June following March city elections.

Deputy Supervisor of Elections Dustin Chase told the Tampa Bay Times “it’s premature for us to discuss anything about a runoff election” because his office has not received any information from the city about a change.

Clearwater’s plurality system has traditionally been uncomplicated as few candidates have run for office over the years. Hamilton raised the question of changing the election system in light of the crowded 2020 election where 13 candidates ran for three seats.

Hamilton noted council member Mark Bunker won with 27 percent of the vote against four opponents under the plurality system that allows a candidate to win without a majority.

Many expect another busy election in March, where two seats are up for grabs. But in the three weeks since candidates have been eligible to file paperwork to launch campaigns, there has been no flood of candidates.

As of Monday, two have filed to run for Seat 5, which will be vacated by Hamilton due to term limits. They are Aaron Smith-Levin, an investment researcher and Church of Scientology defector, and Lina Teixeira, a community activist and fashion designer. Council member David Allbritton is so far running unopposed for a second term in Seat 4. Candidates have until Dec. 17 to file paperwork to run for the at-large seats.

Council member Kathleen Beckman said if the 2020 candidate field was an anomaly, the city should have further discussion on how to motivate residents to run for office versus changing the election system.

“We have much more of a problem with getting people to run,” Beckman said. “If at some point we want to have a real discussion about why that is, I think that’s an important discussion to have as well. For our democracy to work, we need people to run and we need diverse people to run: diverse in gender, age, personal experience, all that stuff.”