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Opinion
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Guest Column
Here’s how St. Petersburg can embrace racial equity in voting | Column
The current citywide run-off system minimizes the voice of those who live in a specific City Council district.
Election workers unload ballots at the Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Office Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.
Election workers unload ballots at the Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Office Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Jun. 17

The St. Petersburg Charter Review Commission and local voters will make a decision this year that could either greatly enhance or impede democracy in the city.

City Council members are currently elected through a flawed at-large runoff system. Candidates in the August primaries compete in one of eight City Council districts. The top two finishers in each district advance to the November runoff. But in that runoff they compete as at-large candidates, facing all the city’s voters, whether or not those voters live in the candidates’ districts.

People of color are in the minority in St. Pete: White residents are 63 percent of the population; Black residents, 24 percent; Hispanic, 8 percent. When runoff elections are held at-large, the city’s overall white majority can dominate all the City Council races, effectively drowning out communities of color.

The city’s recent political history makes this all too clear. Over the past 15 years, Black candidates for the St. Pete City Council have lost every single runoff election against a white opponent — even when those Black candidates had the overwhelming support of Black voters and the residents of their home districts.

Stephanie Owens
Stephanie Owens [ Provided ]

That same system has inhibited representation from historically marginalized communities in cities across the country. In fact, at-large systems have often been cited as a deliberate strategy for limiting the number of officeholders of color in local government and is a barrier to effective representation for neighborhoods. Civil rights organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Southern Poverty Law Center, have argued that in certain circumstances the system violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which outlaw racial discrimination in voting.

Voters have a chance to end it in St. Pete this year. Recently, the Charter Review Commission voted to recommend switching to a system of eight single-member districts, where only voters in those individual districts vote for their City Council member. This approach will ensure that council members are more representative of the communities they serve. District elections will strengthen representation for the city’s neighborhoods. Furthermore, the single-member district system will reduce the cost of campaigning, giving grassroots candidates a chance to compete without having to raise the money needed to run citywide.

Voters will be asked to pass this reform on the November ballot. But that is only part of the work that needs to be done to create a fair electoral process. The city also needs districts that are drawn to create the best opportunity for fair representation for all city residents. This can be achieved by adopting an independent citizens’ redistricting commission process and fair redistricting standards.

To redraw City Council districts currently, St. Pete employs an advisory commission whose members are appointed by current members of the council. But ultimately, the City Council members can veto that commission’s map and draw their own. This creates a clear conflict of interest. Voters should select their elected officials, not the other way around.

The city needs a truly independent citizens’ commission, with unbiased, independent members appointed in an open process. This process should include guarantees of transparency and public input. Those tasked with redistricting should be able to pass a map without getting permission from council members whose districts they are redrawing.

Both these issues will likely be on the ballot in November, and the new guidelines would be operative for 2023 city elections. In the meantime, the Charter Review Commission has not yet finalized its recommendation. Voters should go to the city website, https://www.stpete.org/, reach out by email to the members of the commission and voice support for the proposed new system of eight single-member districts. Those voters can also attend commission meetings in person or participate in an upcoming Zoom session to voice support.

It’s time for St. Pete to embrace racial equity in voting.

Stephanie Owens is a St. Petersburg resident and a member of the board for the Pinellas Chapter of the ACLU of Florida