Clearwater drops ranked choice voting referendum

Even if residents approved the system, it is unlikely to be allowed by the state, council members said.
Two large "Go Vote" signs are seen on the former Clearwater City Hall building before the 2020 election.
Two large "Go Vote" signs are seen on the former Clearwater City Hall building before the 2020 election. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Oct. 8, 2021

CLEARWATER — After months of discussion, residents will not see a ballot question in March on whether they want to change the city’s elections into a system where voters rank candidates in order of preference.

The City Council on Thursday voted 4-1 against holding a referendum on ranked choice voting because, even if residents were to approve it, the city would not be able to be implement the system unless the state recognizes it as a legal method. Council member Kathleen Beckman voted no.

Sarasota was the first city in Florida to approve the system in 2007, but 14 years later, the Secretary of State has not acknowledged the system as constitutional.

“It’s almost going to take somebody suing the state to make this happen,” council member David Allbritton said. “If you get real about it, it’s not something that’s going to happen for a while.”

The exercise, however, shone a light on the state of Clearwater’s plurality elections, where the candidate with the most votes in a race wins even if they don’t earn more than 50 percent.

Beckman said she voted against dropping the ranked choice voting referendum because she feared that it would open the door for an effort to implement runoffs, which are more costly for candidates and cities.

“I want to try to limit the number of hoops that candidates have to go through in order to get elected,” Beckman said.

Most council races in the last two decades have drawn two to three candidates or had incumbents run unopposed. That changed in 2020, when 13 candidates ran for three seats.

Council member Mark Bunker won his five-way race for Seat 2 with 27 percent of the vote. That prompted council member Hoyt Hamilton to raise the issue in March that the city should ensure candidates are elected with at least 50 percent of votes cast.

Hamilton said he favored a system where the top two vote-getters would face off in a runoff if no one earns a majority, but there was no appetite on the council for that structure.

In June, council members agreed to pursue ranked choice voting, now used in 22 jurisdictions across the U.S. They directed City Attorney Pam Akin to draft language for a possible referendum.

Under a ranked choice system, 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.

But on Thursday, Hamilton said his feelings also changed.

“Why are we even going through the exercise in futility of asking our voters to approve a system that we cant use?” Hamilton said.

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When they began pursuing ranked choice voting in June, the council knew then it would not be able to be implemented until the state approves it. Beckman questioned Hamilton on why the city went through the process of drafting a question in the first place.

Hamilton said his outlook changed after more research and input from the public over the past six months.

The crowded 2020 field that prompted Hamilton’s proposal also appears to so far be an anomaly. In the three weeks since candidates have been eligible to file paperwork to run for two City Council seats in the March election, there has not been another flood of candidates.

As of Thursday, 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. Allbritton is so far running unopposed for a second term in Seat 4.

Beckman said instead of changing the current voting system, the city should explore ways to get more diverse candidates running for office.

In Clearwater’s 129-year history, 10 women have been elected to the city’s governing body and one was appointed to fill a vacancy. Three African Americans have served, the last in 1993.

Beckman says she sees the cost of running campaigns as a barrier as well as the discouragement women and people of color may feel by not seeing themselves represented on the dais.

Bunker defended the current plurality system as a way that gives a chance to candidates like himself who don’t have ties to the business community or big donors. He won his five-way race, centered on standing up to the Church of Scientology, while being outspent by opponents. He said he doubts he would have won if he had to compete in a runoff because of the money required to reach voters.

“If you’ve got passionate people in communities that have not been represented up here, really, and they’re dynamic and they have a message, I’d hate to see them crushed because we’ve got people who are part of the huge business community who can rely on the PAC donations,” Bunker said. “It shouldn’t necessarily be how much money you raise.”