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Clearwater council member works to end dismal turnout for city elections

Kathleen Beckman’s door-to-door message: Register, vote early.
Clearwater City Council member Kathleen Beckman talks to Porferio Deguznan at his home off Sunset Point Road while going door to door to encourage voter participation in the March 15 municipal election.
Clearwater City Council member Kathleen Beckman talks to Porferio Deguznan at his home off Sunset Point Road while going door to door to encourage voter participation in the March 15 municipal election. [ TRACEY MCMANUS | Times ]
Published Jan. 17

CLEARWATER — If you’ve been apathetic about voting in local elections, City Council member Kathleen Beckman may be appearing at your doorstep to try to change your mind.

This month, Beckman launched an effort to knock on doors for three hours every Tuesday until the March 15 City Council election to pass out voter registration forms, encourage voting by mail and push residents to “have their voices heard.”

Beckman, a retired teacher halfway through her first four-year term, is not up for reelection. She said she is not advocating for any of the six candidates running for the two contested seats.

But Beckman said that with no early voting for municipal elections, she is encouraging residents to consider voting by mail to boost the chances their votes count.

“We only have one day of walk-in voting in a small municipal election like this, just Tuesday, March 15, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.,” Beckman said to Arben Poti last week as they chatted outside his front door off of Sunset Point Road. “If something happens, you break your leg, your car breaks down, and you’re counting on that Tuesday, then you’re so out of luck.”

Candidates for at-large Seat 4 include: incumbent David Allbritton, 71, a retired contractor running for a second term; community activist Maranda Douglas, 31; and retired technology specialist Gerry Lee, 74.

Candidates for at-large Seat 5, being vacated by term-limited council member Hoyt Hamilton, include: Church of Scientology defector Aaron Smith-Levin, 41; artist and activist Lina Teixeira, 52; and Jonathan Wade Sr., 66, pastor of St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The election is nonpartisan.

“We are going to be making important decisions about our strategic plan, about Bluff development,” Beckman said. “Elections all have significant consequences.”

While Beckman is not advocating for any candidate, she is coordinating her door knocking with friend and Democratic activist Beth Davis, who is campaigning for Douglas in Seat 4. They are not going to doors together, and Beckman said she cleared her voter turnout effort with City Attorney David Margolis.

Clearwater historically has had dismal turnout. About 17 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in 2018 when two council seats were the only thing on the ballot for Clearwater residents. In March 2020, 32 percent voted when three council seats and a presidential primary were on the ballot, according to Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections data.

Those figures are not unusual for local elections nationwide, according to Jan Leighley, professor of government at American University. With limited information and media attention on day-to-day issues, it can be difficult to engage even politically active citizens on local races, she said.

But Leighley said “face-to-face contact” can be an effective way to change that.

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“I find it hard to keep up on election deadlines, locations, hours and rules, and I study this,” Leighley said. “People are working jobs, raising kids, figuring out their finances, so it’s more complicated than you expect. So it’s about building a community of voters.”

Poti, a truck driver with three kids, said he voted in the November 2020 presidential election but has not usually paid attention to the March municipal races. He said this year might be different.

“You get too busy in life, but I’ve noticed myself, I’ve gotten more involved,” Poti said.

Voters have until Feb. 14 to register to vote and until March 5 to request a mail ballot, according to the election supervisor’s office.

A bill signed into law last year by Gov. Ron DeSantis enacted some changes to voting by mail.

If a voter does not have a mail ballot request on file, they must now provide a driver’s license number, ID card number or the last four digits of their Social Security number. The law also put statewide restrictions on where voters can drop off mail ballots, but because Pinellas County’s drop-off locations are limited to the three supervisor of elections offices, deputy supervisor Dustin Chase said there are no changes for this election that will “materially affect the voter.”

On Tuesday, Beckman sent a letter to about 60 churches with information on how to register to vote, encouraging them to push their congregations to vote by mail and suggesting giving members rides to the polls on Election Day.

Beckman is also using her door-to-door canvassing to gather feedback on city issues.

She hands each resident a postcard with a QR code that will allow them to sign up for her monthly newsletter. After talking about the upcoming election, she asks what issues they are concerned about in the city.

Last Tuesday, Porferio Deguznan said he’d like to see his street get reclaimed water hookups and questioned why he didn’t have that service.

Clearwater City Council member Kathleen Beckman, left, talks to resident Arben Poti about voting, city issues and the upcoming council election.
Clearwater City Council member Kathleen Beckman, left, talks to resident Arben Poti about voting, city issues and the upcoming council election. [ TRACEY MCMANUS | Times ]

Poti said he’d like to see speed bumps in the neighborhood “because the cars fly by here and we’ve got kids.”

Beckman walked up to Kimberly Beane’s porch, where a package of diapers had just been delivered. Beane said she doesn’t usually vote in local elections. She promised to look into the candidates for March 15 and that she was most concerned about jobs, housing and education.

Beckman handed Beane her postcard and the two finished chatting as Beane’s kids called for her from inside.

“Email me if you have any questions or ideas or concerns,” Beckman said, walking away. “Thanks for being a voter!”

• • •

March 15 Pinellas municipal elections

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