| Anne Snabes ∙ Sarasota Herald-Tribune |
The city of Sarasota is seeking a court judgment on whether it can use ranked-choice voting in its elections
Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank all candidates in a race, according to their preferences. This form of voting ensures that the winner of an election has received over 50% of the vote.
”commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch noted that the city’s voters have already overwhelmingly approved ranked-choice voting
The city will be seeking a declaration that the Florida Election Code and the state’s Constitution allow municipal elections to be conducted using ranked-choice voting, according to city attorney Robert Fournier. The Sarasota City Commission voted 4-1 on Monday to direct Fournier to work with outside legal counsel on this effort.
Fournier said a declaratory judgment is a way to decide a dispute between two parties about their rights and obligations. The city of Sarasota is wondering what its rights are regarding ranked-choice elections.
Sarasota will file a legal action against either Florida’s Department of State, the department’s Division of Elections or officials within those entities, according to David Angel, general counsel for Rank My Vote Florida, a group that promotes ranked-choice voting in the state
Sarasota voters approved ranked-choice voting in a 2007 referendum, but, at the time, the county’s supervisor of elections did not have the proper voting system to handle it. However, the county switched to a new voting system in 2015, and Elections Supervisor Ron Turner said it is his understanding that the current hardware could potentially handle ranked-choice ballots.
But, Turner said, there is no software certified in the state of Florida that can tabulate a ranked-choice election
For these elections to occur, the state would have to certify software that allows for ranked-choice voting, which it has not seemed willing to do. At an Argus Foundation event in 2019, Secretary of State Laurel Lee said that state law doesn’t allow ranked-choice voting.
Supporters of ranked-choice voting disagree with Lee’s assessment, so they have encouraged the city of Sarasota to ask a state court to determine whether the practice is legal.
If a state court determines that ranked-choice voting in municipalities is legal, that would pave the way for other cities across Florida to implement the practice as well. Clearwater, for example, is considering holding a ranked-choice voting referendum in 2022.
Angel, of Rank My Vote Florida, gave a presentation on the practice at Monday’s City Commission meeting. He said ranked-choice voting allows citizens to vote for their true preference. Currently, voters sometimes do not vote for their preferred candidate because they worry that the candidate has a low chance of winning. But in ranked-choice voting, a voter can make their preferred candidate their first choice and make a candidate who they think is more likely to win their second choice.
Angel said the practice ensures that the winner of an election has achieved a consensus. It also eliminates a need for runoffs.
Angel said that Rank My Vote Florida will pay for the external legal counsel that will work with the city on the civil action to clarify what’s allowed.
Ahead of the commission’s vote, commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch noted that the city’s voters have already overwhelmingly approved ranked-choice voting. The system was approved by 77.6% of Sarasota voters in 2007. Ahearn-Koch also said that the voting system is in the city’s charter.
“It’s our responsibility as elected officials to exercise the voice of the community,” she said, “and this is our job.
Mayor Hagen Brody was the only commissioner who was opposed to the declaratory judgment. He said he is concerned the new voting process could affect voter participation among low-income communities.
“I haven’t been convinced that this is the best thing for our city, to tell you the truth,” he said at the meeting.
Many people spoke at the public comment section of the discussion, including citizens from other parts of Florida who support rank-choice voting, like the mayor of Clearwater. Residents of Sarasota also contributed to the discussion, including Larry Silvermintz, president of the Alta Vista Neighborhood Association, who supports ranked-choice voting. He said that that the voters’ decision in 2007 does not expire even though it took place a while ago.
“What I’m in favor of is heeding the will of the voters,” he said.