By Michael Barfield, Guest Columnist
Posted Oct 29, 2018 at 6:12 AM
Who can argue against increasing voter turnout in municipal elections by 300 percent while saving taxpayers money? Surprisingly, last week, Carrie Seidman’s column heralded “Undisclosed dollars vie for your ballot decisions,” and omitted key information from readers about the “Change the Date” ballot initiative to amend the Sarasota City Charter.
The column speculated that the ballot initiative might be a Trojan horse laden with sinister plans by developers, but failed to mention the role of several organizations that directly undermine that suggestion. Despite this bucket of omission and misinformation, the column failed to offer even one example of “undisclosed” or “mystery” dollars supporting Change the Date.
Let’s be clear about what supporting the Change the Date initiative means: It seeks to schedule municipal elections when most people vote and saves taxpayers money. Nothing more. Nothing less.
The initiative aligns municipal elections with other local, state and federal elections held in the fall. It is undisputed that voter turnout triples when elections are held in the fall, rather than in the spring. It also saves taxpayers at least $100,000 each election cycle by scheduling city elections when other elections are held. It has absolutely nothing to do with the developer-phobia rampant in city politics.
Change the Date is truly a bipartisan effort of organizations that found they share one goal in common: to schedule an election when most people turn out to vote. Those organizations are as varied as the political spectrum, including the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, Sarasota Police Officers Association, The Argus Foundation, Sarasota Manatee Young Democrats, Gulf Coast Business Exchange, NAACP, ACLU of Florida and others. Greater civic participation is the only thing being built.
Despite the column’s headline, there has been full disclosure of the groups supporting Change the Date. There is no mystery about the origin of the widely varying groups supporting the initiative or who has contributed money to the endeavor.
The ACLU of Florida contributed $15,000 to the initiative. As required by law, this contribution was timely reported and the contributions and expenditures of the initiative are readily available online.
The ACLU is not a “mystery” organization and fully disclosed its financial support and endorsement of the initiative. The ACLU’s long-term goal is to sponsor similar ballot initiatives all over the state because we firmly believe in the simple proposition that it’s always better when more people vote in elections — regardless of the outcome.
The only “mystery” is why the column failed to mention any of this. Perhaps mentioning the ACLU’s participation in this initiative didn’t fit with the erroneous premise of the column (undisclosed dark money coming from developers). Readers would certainly laugh aloud if anyone suggested that the ACLU, a local police organization and the NAACP were behind some secret plot supporting developers. Omission of these salient facts doesn’t make them go away, nor does it aid the objective of informing voters about the true intent behind the Change the Date movement.
This ballot initiative brought together organizations with varying interests. Yet the broad coalition was able to put aside the hyper-partisan rhetoric commanding so much media attention these days to focus on the singular goal of getting more people to vote in municipal elections. No one within the coalition was concerned about the outcome of more people voting in an election — something our opponents seem to fear.
Why would anyone argue against increasing voter turnout and saving taxpayers money? Special-interest groups, unions and even political parties are worried because it’s easier to win an election when voter turnout is 20 percent. These groups fear the unknown when voter participation increases to 60 percent because it deprives them of the ability to know who is likely to win before an election occurs, allowing them to continue manipulating outcomes.
Off-cycle elections held in the spring increase the influence of organized special-interest groups because the low turnout enhances the ability of such groups to mobilize a proportionately larger voting bloc. Scheduling off-cycle elections in the spring is a tactic designed to affect the outcome of the electoral process by 1) minimizing voter participation, and 2) mobilizing a small bloc of super-voters to turn out.
It’s time for the opponents of Change the Date to stop fearing greater civic participation in voting and confess that they simply want to maintain the status quo by controlling the outcome of municipal elections through the artifice of the calendar.
Bipartisanship may have become a dirty word because it creates no controversy. But the truth is that it can be quite refreshing when diverse groups put aside their differences and focus on one ballot initiative that promotes greater civic participation while saving taxpayers money.
That’s what Change the Date accomplishes. Vote “Yes.”
Michael Barfield is the president of ACLU of Florida. He lives in Sarasota.
Link to Sarasota Herald-Tribune article can be found here.