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Do At-Large Seats Hurt Voter Representation?


Florida counties that do not adopt their own charter have county commissions that include two “at-large” or countywide seats. The intent is to make them more representative of constituents, but in practice they seem to do little more than ensure that special interests maintain a majority of the vote, while also costing taxpayers a significant amount of money.

“I would never want to run a countywide race,” one local politician recently told me. “You've got to get too many votes, which means you've got to spend a lot of money. The math is just really tough, especially if you're up against a well-financed opponent. In a district, you've got a much better chance to reach more of the voters with less money.”

Fundraising for Manatee County Commission elections has been getting increasingly one-sided. In nearly every race, there is one candidate who garners an enormous war-chest filled mostly by developers, with the help of other big-business sectors who tend to have a lot of their interests go before the board, such as phosphate companies or the county's health care partners. That candidate usually gets some extra help from a PAC as well.

In the last two election cycles, district seats had between 15,000-36,000 voters participating in the general election race, while at-large seats had 101,000-116,000 voters. In 2012, spending for the winners started at just over $75,000 and ranged to more than $115,000 in the countywide race (or about $1 per voter), not including hundreds of thousands of dollars more spent by PACs.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that a race against a well-financed opponent in a district is any sort of cakewalk. Incumbent District 1 County Commissioner Larry Bustle raised over $103,000 in 2012, while his primary and general election opponents combined raised only a little under $16,000, and Bustle won both races easily. Incumbent District 3 Commissioner John Chappie raised more than $78,000 in 2012 and he didn't even have an opponent – in either race!

Nonetheless, if you aren't going to outdo your opponent in fundraising, then grassroots, door-to-door campaigning, event outreach and social media are your other options, and getting a majority of 15-30,000 voters is obviously much easier than getting a majority of 100-120,000 when you've got to win with your ground game.

By keeping two seats out of the typical grassroots candidate's reach, it's that much easier for special interests to maintain a majority of friendly votes on the board. Look at how many 5-2 votes we see today. The dissent almost never comes from a countywide commissioner.

Were those instead 3-2 votes and only one district would have to swing away from special interests in an election, you can much more easily begin to imagine real change in our county. However, as it stands, anyone who follows county politics closely will tell you that changing the status quo usually looks as viable as pushing wet mud up a steep hill.

Another option might be the possibility of nonpartisan elections like we have with our school boards. Sure, parties tend to do everything they can to let their faithful know who's who, but by eliminating the “straight-ticket” effect and putting the onus on voters to cast an informed vote, the sort of grassroots campaigning that candidates not aligned with special interests must do becomes ever more important.

Unless a county votes to become a charter county (20 of Florida's 67 counties currently have their own charter), it would take an amendment to the state constitution to change the way county governments in the state are set up. Given the state of our county and the difficulty in effecting change under a local government where big money decides almost every single election, lobbying for either one might be something to consider.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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