Single Member Districts Fails
Tie Vote on 1st Reading Spells Failure – for now
by Anne Mooney / November 12, 2020
With only four Commissioners present at the November 11 meeting, the ordinance to put Single Member Districts (SMD) to a vote on the March 9, 2021, ballot failed on a 2 – 2 vote. Commissioners Marty Sullivan and Sheila DeCiccio voted in favor. Mayor Steve Leary and Vice Mayor Carolyn Cooper voted against. Commissioner Todd Weaver was absent because of illness.
Ironically, the measure failed twice. First, Cooper moved to deny putting the measure on the ballot. Cooper and Leary voted for; Sullivan and DeCiccio voted against. Immediately following, Sullivan moved to approve putting the measure on the ballot – with the same result.
The Devil is in the Details
Changing the basis of a city’s governance, one that seems to have served the city well for more than 130 years, is complicated – and scary. Just the thought of change can cause anxiety in most people.
That’s not to say change is bad, or that a city can’t change its mode of governance. But it is a difficult and complex task, one that does not happen quickly or easily. Each question seems to give rise to five others. How will districts be drawn? Who will draw them? What data is available to do this in an equitable way? After all, the most recent Census data is now 10 years old. What happens if we annex another neighborhood? What if no candidate files to run in a particular district? In the case of SMD, more than most, the devil is in the details.
Voters Still Want Info about SMD
Despite its defeat last night, email and Facebook traffic indicate that Winter Park voters still want information about what SMD might mean for Winter Park. At a virtual information session conducted by the Coalition for Access and Representation (CFAR) Monday night, Jamie Joyce of the Society Library, a non-partisan non-profit 501(c)(3), presented a white paper that laid out the arguments for and against SMD in Winter Park. The event, including the white paper, can be viewed here. https://www.facebook.com/Coalition-For-Access-and-Representation-CFAR-103882477624971/ What follows is a summary of the arguments Ms. Joyce presented for and against SMD in Winter Park.
Winter Park should have Single Member Districts, because . . .
It promotes civic engagement.
District elections might improve community participation if candidates are more engaged with a particular community. Under-represented constituents will be more likely to participate if they know they are truly represented.
Con: All commissioners should be accountable to all citizens. With SMD, a citizen will technically have only one representative, plus the Mayor, on the commission.
SMD improves racial diversity in representation.
SMD will give Winter Park residents the opportunity to elect a person of color.
Con: In any fairly drawn district in terms of population size, the Winter Park African American population would not achieve a majority. The opportunity to elect a person of color to the Commission is not dependent on SMD, but on the qualifications and appeal of the individual candidate.
SMD improves economic diversity of representation.
Because it is less expensive to campaign in a single district, people at a lower income can afford to run for office.
SMD improves geographic representation.
Single member districts ensure geographic representation.
Con: Geographic representation, in and of itself, still may not ensure representation for under-served ethnic populations like Winter Park African Americans who, because of West Side gentrification, are no longer concentrated in a single small area.
What’s to lose?
If the ordinance is put on the ballot, then it’s up to the voters to decide, freeing the Commissioners from having to make the decision.
Con: Winter Park voters are not educated on this issue; it’s a waste of their time.
Answer to the Con: Then educate them; it’s their civic duty to become informed.
Answer to the answer: Four months is too little time, especially without knowing what the districts would look like.
SMD makes Commissioners more accountable.
Commissioners can be more easily held accountable by localized citizens.
Con: Only the mayor and one Commissioner will be accountable to any given citizen, thereby reducing accountability of the Commission as a whole.
SMD ensures localized issues will receive attention.
Commissioners would be more in touch with issues affecting their constituents.
Con: This will lead to Commissioners putting localized issues ahead of the needs of the whole City.
Builds more effective constituent relationships.
SMD improves overall responsiveness to local issues.
Con: Winter Park Commission already performs well in response to constituent concerns.
Makes elections more free and fair.
Because the cost of a single-district campaign is less, there would be less reliance on contributions from special interests.
Con: Because the cost of a single-district campaign is less, it will be easier for special interests to ‘buy’ an election.
SMD is a more progressive form of government.
Supreme Court Justice Ginsberg cited at large voting, along with racial gerrymandering, as a preeminent second-generation way to deny equal opportunity for minority voters and candidates. A number of local jurisdictions in FL and across the country who traditionally used at large systems have faced federal lawsuits to force a switch to a district-based system as part of the Voting Rights Act.
Con: At just over 7 percent, the minority population of Winter Park is too small for SMD to make any difference.
If we don’t vote on it now, we’ll miss the chance.
If the Commission does not put this ordinance on the ballot now, they are unlikely to consider it again unless some special circumstance arises.
Con: It is still possible to put the ordinance on the ballot through a petition. There is still time to conduct enough information sessions to inform the public.
Winter Park should not have Single Member Districts, because . . .
It’s not the right time.
This is an emotional time for the country, and decisions about government should not be swayed by emotion.
Con: There are good non-emotional reasons to support the ballot initiative.
It won’t achieve the goals it was meant to achieve.
If the goal is to increase the chances of electing an African American commissioner, in any fairly drawn district in terms of population size, the African American population of Winter Park could not achieve a majority, if that’s what it takes to ensure the election of an African American commissioner.
Con: Just because SMD will not ensure the election of an African American commissioner does not mean SMD still is not best for the city and won’t lead to increased diversity in city government.
The electorate doesn’t really want it.
Vice Mayor Cooper noted she had received more than 230 emails from residents about backyard chickens, compared with 26 emails about SMD (five of which came from people who were not Winter Park residents).
Con: Emails to the Vice Mayor is only one indicator. CFAR’s Barbara Chandler has collected more than 100 signatures in support of the motion.
All groups are fairly represented in Winter Park.
Historically, candidates, both successful and failed, have come from fairly distributed parts of the city.
Con: No African American has been elected to the Commission in 133 years.
It’s the wrong cause.
Not enough ethnically and economically diverse candidates are running for office in Winter Park.
Con: It’s likely because of how expensive it is to campaign at large. SMD will make running for office more accessible to residents of various income levels, identities and backgrounds.
SMD is not how cities our size do things.
At-large elections tend to be more practical in small cities and in more homogeneous areas.
Con: Several Central Florida cities in Winter Park’s size range have SMD, including Ocoee, Cocoa, Mt. Dora, Sanford and Winter Garden.
At-large elections are more democratic.
At-large elections allow all residents to vote for all commission candidates.
Con: Democratic institutions have a duty to protect minority groups from disenfranchisement and under-representation by majority rule.
SMD will make the Commission less effective.
SMD may encourage in-fighting, vote-trading and competition among districts for city resources.
Con: The efficacy of the Commission depends upon the quality and character of the individuals who are elected.
SMD will give voters fewer options.
Voters will have a smaller pool of candidates from which to choose.
Con: The options they do have will be more likely to represent their interests.
Asked for her thoughts on the outcome of last night’s Commission vote, CFAR’s Barbara Chandler replied, “. . . this is considered more delaying.”
For more information about SMD, go to http://cfarvote.com/cfar-home-mobile/