In the rough-and-tumble world of Florida politics, most of the state’s elected positions are partisan – candidates run as either Democrats or Republicans, or third party nominees. Both major parties hold primaries to select candidates for offices like state senator, state representative and county commissioner, then advance their nominees to the general election.
In one local county, though, voters will be asked on Nov. 6 to take the partisan politics out of the races for county commissioner – and instead let voters simply select their nominees in non-partisan elections, as voters now do for school board or judicial races.
“If this passes, the election of county commissioners would be non-partisan,” said Mary Jane Arrington, Osceola County’s supervisor of elections. “They would not run with party affiliation.”
The county commission races, in the future, would be decided in the state’s August primary, and there would no longer be partisan primaries allowing the major parties to select their nominees. Instead, there would be a runoff in the event that a single candidate failed to win a majority of the votes cast in the primary.
“They would be on the primary ballot instead of the general,” Arrington said. “If no one gets 50 percent plus one (votes) in the primary, they would advance to the general election.”
Currently, Osceola County elects its officeholders, including county commissioners, in partisan races. The Nov. 6 ballot, for example, will include partisan races for Osceola County Clerk of Courts (Democrat Armando Ramirez is running against Republican Rayelynne Ketchyum), Sheriff (incumbent Bob Hansell, a Democrat, faces token opposition from a write-in candidate, Timothy Devine), and even Arrington herself, a Democrat running for another term and facing opposition from Republican Peter Olivo.
There are also three county commission races on the Nov. 6 ballot, covering separate commission districts. In District 1, Commissioner Michael Harford, a Democrat, faces a rematch with the man he defeated in 2008, Republican Paul Owen.
In District 3, Commissioner Brandon Arrington, a Democrat, is being challenged by Republican Jeff Goldmacher, while in District 5, Commissioner Fred Hawkins Jr., a Republican, will compete against Chad Steven Carnell, an independent with no party affiliation.
If the referendum is approved, it would mark the second major change in the past four years in how the county elects its commissioners.
Prior to 2007, Osceola County elected its commissioners at-large – meaning candidates for county commissioner were elected by voters in the entire county, and not in single-member districts.
In 2006, a federal district court judge in Orlando ruled against Osceola County, arguing that its at-large elections for electing its Board of County Commissioners violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because the
system diluted the voting strength of the county’s growing Hispanic population.
Instead, starting with a special election in 2007, the court called for the establishment of five single-member districts.
Supervisor of Elections Arrington said one challenge for the new proposal for non-partisan elections is that historically, voter turnout in the primaries has been low.
Even in the November general election, she said, up to 30 percent of Osceola County’s registered voters probably will not go to the polls. Turnout in the primary is often below 20 percent, she added.
Those numbers are worthy considering, said Keith Laytham, president of the civic group Poinciana Residents for Smart Change. Laytham, who lives in Polk County, noted that the turnout for the state’s Aug. 14 primary was just 16 percent.
“We had 16 percent turnout in the primary, which means that 16 percent of Osceola County would elect commissioners” if the ballot measure passes, he said.
On the other hand, Arrington said, holding critical races like Board of County Commissioners might actually help attract more voters to the polls during the primary — assuming election leaders can get the word out that the primary would potentially settle the race before the November general.
“There are a lot of important things to vote on in the primary, and voters don’t understand that,” she said. “A lot of races that really affect our lives are chosen in the primary.”
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