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Clearwater proposes a big change in elections. What voters need to know.

Experts discuss the pros and cons of a March referendum on whether City Council races can be decided with runoffs.
 
A sign points the way for voters at Cypress Meadows Community Church on March 15, 2022, in Clearwater, where the 2024 ballot contains a referendum on the city's election system.
A sign points the way for voters at Cypress Meadows Community Church on March 15, 2022, in Clearwater, where the 2024 ballot contains a referendum on the city's election system. [ Times (2022) ]
Published Jan. 25|Updated Jan. 26

Clearwater voters will not only be deciding three City Council races on March 19. They will also determine if the city should change the way it runs its elections.

Under the current winner-take-all system for the five at-large seats, the candidate who gets a plurality of votes in each race wins with no further votes taken. That became a talking point four years ago when one candidate in a five-way race got elected with less than a third of the vote.

A ballot question will ask whether the city should create runoffs beginning in 2026 for the top two vote getters in a race if no candidate receives more than 50% of votes. The change would also move Clearwater’s regular elections from March of even-numbered years to coincide with the August primaries in even years and hold any necessary runoffs with the November general election.

The Tampa Bay Times spoke with three elections experts who cautioned that there is no perfect voting method. But they explained pros and cons to both runoffs and plurality elections.

Why now?

For many years, Clearwater races drew two or three candidates or had incumbents run unopposed. That changed in 2020 when 13 candidates ran for three seats, an unprecedented bench for a city election. With five people in the race for Seat 2, Mark Bunker, an outsider of the political establishment and a critic of the Church of Scientology, won with 27% of the votes.

Filmmaker and longtime Scientology critic Mark Bunker, left, attends a candidate forum with fellow City Council candidate Mike Mannino on Feb. 12, 2020, in Clearwater. Bunker won the Seat 2 council race with 27% of the vote, triggering proposals to change the city's election system.
Filmmaker and longtime Scientology critic Mark Bunker, left, attends a candidate forum with fellow City Council candidate Mike Mannino on Feb. 12, 2020, in Clearwater. Bunker won the Seat 2 council race with 27% of the vote, triggering proposals to change the city's election system. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

When former City Council member Hoyt Hamilton pitched the idea for runoffs in 2021, he pointed to Bunker’s race as an example for needing a system to produce a majority winner as more people run for office. Mayor Brian Aungst Sr. pushed the idea again last fall, arguing candidates should be elected with a mandate and that it was time for voters to decide if the system should change.

The council voted 4-1 to put the referendum on the ballot with council member Kathleen Beckman voting no. She opposed creating runoffs, in part, without also establishing districts to narrow the geography where candidates have to run.

Runoff pros and cons

The most commonly touted benefit of runoffs is that they result in a candidate being elected with more than half of the votes cast.

“That can feel for some like a greater degree of legitimacy, a higher sense of representativeness or something along those lines,” said Scott Paine, who retired in 2022 as the Florida League of Cities’ director of leadership development and education.

In 2020, for example, 73% of those who cast a ballot in Bunker’s five-way race voted for someone else. Clearwater is the largest city in the Gulf Coast region that allows a candidate to take office without receiving a majority of votes, according to the proposed runoff ordinance.

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But the ability to win with a plurality in winner-take-all elections can enable candidates who represent minority communities or issues to earn a voice on an elected body. “It does make it possible for candidates to target particular voices of concern,” Paine said.

A candidate representing a minority group who advances to a runoff can have a harder time winning because they often are lesser known or have fewer resources to reach the masses, said Michael McDonald, professor of political science at University of Florida.

“The mandate question is more about a question of representation,” McDonald said. “Do you want one interest being represented, which is the majority interest solely, or do you want to have other voices there? Having a different viewpoint on the council represented and having the council have to deliberate and find common ground between viewpoints is another way of looking at how democracy should work.”

Runoff elections emerged in southern states in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a way for white Democrats to stay in power. As more African Americans pushed for their right to vote in the Jim Crow South, a candidate supported by Black voters could win a primary if the white vote was split among candidates. Runoffs emerged to enable the white power structure to rally around a single candidate and defeat Black interests, McDonald said.

Today this system can also empower the political establishment in a community as groups with money and influence back one candidate in the runoff.

McDonald said this dynamic can be especially true when runoffs are coupled with seats that are elected at-large. Candidates being required to achieve more than 50% of votes citywide, not within a district, can be “a way to make sure the overwhelming political majority exerts its influence.”

In St. Petersburg, all eight City Council seats represent a district and only voters in those boundaries can vote in a municipal primary election. The top two advance to a general election voted on city-wide.

The Tampa City Council has three at-large seats and four districts. Voters citywide cast ballots for the at-large seats in municipal elections and runoffs. Only voters living within each single district’s boundaries can vote in elections and their runoffs.

Election dates matter

Moving the dates of Clearwater’s elections could have a significant impact on voter turnout, the experts said.

Studies show municipal elections held in conjunction with county, state and federal elections result in higher voter participation.

If the referendum passes, Clearwater elections would remain in even years, meaning they may avoid turnout dropping between the primary and runoff, which Paine said can occur in off-cycle years without other races on the ballot.

For the election in March 2022, where only City Council races were on the ballot, 25.8% of voters turned out, according to the supervisor of elections data. That year, Clearwater voters participated at a rate of 30.6% in the August primaries. And in the November general election, 58.3% of Clearwater voters turned out, data shows.

However, having nonpartisan city elections align with partisan primaries can also impact which voters show up at the polls depending who is on the ballot, Paine said.

“If you have a hot primary in one party and not a hot primary in the other, the electorate will skew with the hot party,” Paine said. “Of course, the municipal elections are nonpartisan but we put that in air quotes sometimes.”

With a packed ballot, as opposed to an election with only city races, some voters will not make it all the way to local races at the bottom, said Christopher Spinale, director of curriculum and associate director of the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship at the University of Central Florida.

“Municipal elections are going to be after all the federal and state and county and school board offices, and voter fatigue is real — it’s documented in the literature,” Spinale said.

While some won’t vote in bottom-ballot races, more people overall will turn out for concurrent elections, meaning “you’re still going to get a good number of people participating in that election who otherwise wouldn’t have done so,” McDonald said.

Creating a runoff system requires voter approval in order to change the city charter, but moving election dates does not. State law gives the council authority to move its regular election from March to coincide with August primaries by ordinance, according to City Attorney David Margolis.

But the questions of creating a runoff and moving election dates were coupled on the referendum due to logistical issues.

The supervisor of elections would not be able to accommodate holding a runoff for Clearwater a month or two after a March election, Margolis said. Because a municipal election and runoff would have to coincide with the August and November elections, “the only way to create a runoff system in Clearwater is to pair the creation of the runoff system with the change in election dates,” Margolis said.

If the referendum passes, it will also trigger a change in the way council vacancies are filled. A new member would be appointed by the remaining council to serve the rest of the departing member’s term. Under the current system, appointees serve only until the next regular or special election.

Margolis explained the reason for the change. If the current rubric was used with runoffs, he said, an appointee would leave office in August and their successor would not step in until November. That would create a three-month vacancy during a time of the year when the city is required to finalize its tax rate and budget.

Cost is a factor

The primary runoff system is also significantly more expensive for candidates than a winner-take-all race because they have to raise more money to advertise and reach voters for two elections as opposed to one, the experts said

That can hinder candidates who don’t have access to high-dollar donors or personal wealth to finance their own campaigns.

“I imagine that the cost of running for Clearwater office will go up dramatically with this change,” Paine said. “The cost for the runoff might be even more (than the municipal election) because there will be more people voting.”

But whether the expense for candidates matters depends on what’s important to each voter, Spinale said.

“The runoff does make candidates work harder for their votes,” Spinale said. “If you’re running for public office, you have an obligation to your potential constituents to let them know where you stand on issues. If you want their votes, you need to be able to seek people out for why they should give it to you.”

If the referendum passes, the cost to Clearwater taxpayers, however, would be less.

When Clearwater’s March elections fall in years without a presidential preference primary, the city has to pay more for the county to run the election. In March 2022, when the council race was the only thing on the ballot for Clearwater voters, the city paid the county $141,532 to cover the administration fee, poll workers, equipment, ballots and other costs, according to the invoice.

But this March, when the council election coincides with the Republican presidential preference primary, the city will have to pay the county roughly $10,000 to cover the administration fee and sample ballot publication, according to City Clerk Rosemarie Call.

The costs for the county to hold the council election in conjunction with the other races on the August primary ballot would also be about $10,000, Call said. The cost would be roughly the same for any required runoff.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the description of St. Petersburg’s general election.