Thoughts on possible election changes for Fernandina Beach: an opinion

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
December 12, 2018 2:53 p.m.

As a New Year approaches Fernandina Beach voters have put to bed one more contest for seats on the Fernandina Beach City Commission.  Is there a better way to conduct city elections?  One that will achieve higher voter participation?

With 24.94 percent of Fernandina Beach’s 10,873 registered voters turning out to vote in the December 11 run-off election for Group 4 seat on the City Commission, Mike Lednovich emerged the winner with 1,414 votes (52.14 percent) over Bradley Bean who garnered 1,298 votes (47.86 percent).  This means that Mr. Lednovich will serve to represent all the people of the city, even though only 13 percent of all registered voters  voted for him.

This is by no means meant to challenge the legitimacy of Mr. Lednovich’s victory.  He ran an excellent campaign with a message that resonated with enough voters to give him 116 more votes than Mr. Bean.  That is a clear, legitimate win by any definition.  He deserves our congratulations on his successful campaign and our support as he assumes his duties on the City Commission. Both he and his opponent ran clean campaigns.  Mr. Bean, who stuck his toe into the political waters with this race, is certainly young enough and capable enough to continue seeking elected office in future elections.

But with such low voter turnout in a run-off election, one must wonder whether a run-off is truly worth the costs and efforts for both the candidates and the government.  The level of interest among the general electorate does not seem apparent or inspiring.

Lower the threshold from majority to a percentage of 40

Perhaps it is time to revisit the City Charter with respect to the portion dealing with elections. Instead of a guaranteed run-off if no candidate receives a majority of votes cast in the general election, perhaps there could be some provisional language inserted to say that a run-off will only be held if a candidate does not receive a certain percentage of votes cast, for example 40 percent.

Such a change could make the system better in a couple of ways.  A required threshold for votes would ensure that a substantial number of people supported the candidate.  This would be crucial in the off chance that as many as five or more candidates were in the race.  By requiring a higher percent than a mere plurality, citizens could be assured that a candidate with only a couple hundred votes would not automatically  be declared the winner.

Elections would improve in another way under such a system.  Instead of just campaigning enough to guarantee a place in the top two positions in the run-off election, candidates would would be able to go all out in the general. A more robust general election, especially when candidates don’t need hold back campaign funds that might be needed for a run-off, might engage more voters and even result in a candidate’s winning a majority of votes cast.

Another thought

Now that city elections are run every two years, with either two or three commissioners elected in alternating races, there are other possibilities.  Since city commissioners are not elected to serve a geographic district, but run at large to represent the entire city, why not do away with the distinction of “Groups,” an artificial construct, and let all interested candidates run for commission every two years.  In such a system, the top two (or three) vote getters would be elected. This would reinforce that the candidates are running for office, as opposed to running against an individual.

The scenarios described above have been used in various communities and seem to work.  Maybe they are worth considering, along with other ideas, here in Fernandina Beach.  Increasing voter engagement and turnout should be important goals for the community. A formal review of the City Charter on the topic of elections would engage the public in surfacing ideas for the community to consider.

These are my thoughts.  I’d be interested in reading yours.

Suanne Thamm 4Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.

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20 Responses to Thoughts on possible election changes for Fernandina Beach: an opinion

  1. Gerald Decker says:

    The real solution is to get higher voter participation. Clearly this time, the majority of voters simply DID NOT CARE who won. There are a small number of common-minded anti-progress die-hard voters who always vote….so they get to be the deciders…for better or worst…unless and until the silent majority takes an interest. Welcome to democrary.

    • Frank Quigley says:

      Agree. Voter turnout is a direct measure of voter interest and the ability of candidates to interest the populous. Don’t tinker with with it. If people don’t vote and don’t like the results, it’s on them.

  2. John Martin says:

    Another option would be to hold the City Primary Election in August and the General Election in November with the rest of the Offices the are on the ballot. Turnout for these Elections were significantly higher than a December Run-Off.

  3. chuck hall says:

    it’s the candidates, not the system. Leave it alone, please.

  4. Douglas Adkins says:

    Municipal elections can get lost among all the other political issues that voters contend with during the course of the year. The bottomline is voter contact drives turnout, what I know is that Bean raised $17,000 and spent $9000 according to the SOE website and Lednovich raised $11,000 and spent $10,000 – the dollars available to the candidates came from Tallahassee political committees, well know political figures in the community, donors both inside and outside the city and the county. The fact is getting your message to voters is a key ingredient to any campaign, people want to know “what is your plan?” You also now have to deal with the “fake news” aspect of social media, the campaign has to over come these issues with good communications platform aimed at getting the facts out. Typically in down ticket races the first name on the ballot will win as there are many voters who come out to vote the top of the ticket and have no real interest in the lower ballot races so they just vote that first name. Recently you saw a Port Commissioner Adam Salzburg lose to Scott Hana who only spent $45 to qualify but because his name was first he was able to win despite Salzburg investing $9,300. Clearly messaging made a difference in this race and perhaps what is not well understood is the residual effects of HB 631, the voter opposition to the Bean supported plan on “Beach Rights” and the controversy that led thousands to sign petitions had a residual effect that held over into the fall Municipal elections. I think we thank both of these gentlemen for their service and we should look to put each of them to work for the good of the community, there is great work that has yet to be done and there is always room for one more person who wants to pull on the oar. Just my thoughts…

  5. Mac Morriss says:

    There are solid reasons why our system is set up as it is.

    First, to stop election rigging. Having a third candidate run who has a similar platform and demographic to split the opponents vote. That is why the percentage rules are worth keeping. Lowering the percentage needed to win only makes it easier for election rigging.

    We went through all of this discussion years ago about the years of terms. I believe it was voted on by ballot or survey.

    Many times over the decades elected officials, despite having extensive experience running businesses and sitting on nonprofit boards, say that the first year or two in office they still had a learning curve. That is why we have four year terms. To put that experience and learning curve education to work for the community. Makes no sense to have two year terms and waste that knowledge.

    • Suanne Thamm says:

      Mac, I was not suggesting changing terms from 4 to 2 years. Elections are for 4 year terms and occur in even numbered years, with 2 commissioners elected this year and 3 commissioners up for election in 2020.

    • Jack Knocke says:

      I agree with Mac. There are solid reasons for the current system and years of experience confirming the effectiveness. Sometimes a change to a working system can cause unwanted consequences. I applaud the ideas. We always need thought processes that challenge the status quo. In this case, I think that the system works.

      • Ben Martin says:

        Mr. Knocke – the system is working extremely well for candidates who have large amounts of corporate funding. The “Ranked Choice Voting” system mentioned by Mr. Kavanaugh would not affect a contest with only 2 candidates. It applies to races where there are more than 2 choices. When you look at how banks, pharmaceutical companies, and other corporations fund both sides of the 2 party fence – anything that makes a 3rd party candidate’s campaign more viable – seems like a very good thing to have. RCV makes 3rd party campaigns more viable. I agree with your position that “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” But for a race with more than 2 candidates the system definitely needs an upgrade.

        https://fotw.info/flags/us%7Dcorp.html

  6. Dave Lott says:

    Suanne,
    Good piece to think about. The City has modified its municipal elections several times over the last decade or two from changing the time of the election to coincide with the general election (both time of the year as well as having in even-numbered years). Justification was one of cost savings and increasing voter turnout. Arguments can be made for either side. As Doug Adkins note, having a larger voter turnout doesn’t necessarily mean that the best qualified candidate is the one chosen. My recollection is that the 25% turnout in the run-off is about the same or slightly better than the participation rate of the general city election when it was earlier in the year.

    I am opposed to lowering the 50% threshold. If a candidate doesn’t recieve that level of support, it means that more voters decided to vote for that candidate’s opponents than for the candidate. As happened this year and has happened frequently in the past, the #2 vote getter in the general election ends up winning the run-off election. Under the suggested threshold of 40% (or even if it was 45%), Mr. Bean would have been elected, a result total opposite of the final outcome under the current rules.

    All of the candidates understand what the rules are and make their campaign’s vote getting strategy based on what they think is the best way to win. Some may choose to go all out and try to win at the general election while others may hold a reserve for campaign expenses (or be prepared for another round of contribution requests) for a run-off.
    At least by having an open election structure, the City doesn’t have to deal with the ghost candidates that have taken place in the partisan county and state elections.

    • Clinch Kavanaugh says:

      Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is a better solution. RCV is a voting system that allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, and then use those ranking to elect a candidates by using those rankings to elect candidates by combining strong first Choice support with the ability to earn second and third Choice support. Sarasota is going to use this system as soon as the Department of State certifies the soft ware. This system is also called “Instant Runn Off”.

      • Dave Lott says:

        “Better” like “beauty” is all in the eyes of the beholder and the devil is in the details as to how the process will be specifically conducted. In some processes, the candidate the fewest number of first choice votes is eliminated if no single candidate gets a majority of first choice votes, even though that person might have the highest number of second choice votes. There have been cases where a couple of candidates have endorsed each other hoping to gain the most first and second choice votes. This could happen if the district segmentation was eliminated and the two or three candidates (depending on the cycle) tried to form a coalition to get elected as a bloc. Some say that would be okay or others oppose. It is interesting that the state of Maine is the only state to have put RCV in place for their statewide races with the exception of the governor’s race.
        It will be interesting to see how this movement fares over the next several years..

      • Ben Martin says:

        History was made on Nov 15 when the first congressional race was decided by RCV – in Maine

        http://www.lwvme.org/RCV.html

        RCV eliminates “spoiler effect” concerns and allows voters to vote for the candidate that is there first choice. This will make the campaigns of 3rd party candidates more viable. 3rd party candidates are less likely to be career politicians with years and years of corporate funding (e.g. banks, pharmaceutical companies, etc.). RCV sounds like a good thing and it is becoming popular.

    • John Martin says:

      Dave, your comment regarding turnout in the Run-Off being slightly better than the General Election is not correct. In the General Election over 7000 City Residents voted in the Bean / Lednovich / Smith race out of the almost 11000 eligible voters. That is a significantly higher Voter Turnout percentage than in the December Run-Off. I didn’t do the exact math on this, but a quick look indicates that the General Election Turnout for this race was approximately 65%. More than double the Run-Off Turnout. The answer seems obvious to me.

  7. Jon Belcher says:

    A few questions and thoughts from the other coast:

    Why don’t you elect City Commissioners using both the August Primary and November general? I get that the City races are non-partisan but here in Oregon we use the primary-general elections for all races. If you win in the primary, your name is on the general ballot with no opponent so folks could still mount a write-in campaign (none has succeeded in the forty years I have been here)

    Instant runoff voting or ranked choice voting eliminates the need for a second election altogether. According to this Wikipedia Article: https://tinyurl.com/l8zq8rj it was used in Florida in the early 20th century and currently in jurisdictions in 15 states. In Lane County Oregon we almost voted in STAR voting this November which overcomes the issue with IRV that those who voted for the least popular candidate are first to determine who wins the “instant runoff” More on that here: https://www.starvoting.us/

    Mr. Adkins raises the issue of ballot order affecting results. That issue is lessened here in Oregon because the Secretary of State creates a random ordered alphabet for each election season to determine the order of candidates names.

    Oregon also votes entirely by mail which increases voter turnout as well.

  8. Andrew Curtin says:

    It seems no matter what we do, the voter turnout needle doesn’t move much. So, i would put the emphasis on the cost savings resulting from lessening the possibility of a runoff. Having the top vote getter being declared winner as long as that candidate received 40% or more of the votes and there was a 10 point or more spread between the top two. It would save the cit the cost of another low turnout runoff.

    • Ben Martin says:

      It would seem that a Ranked Choice Voting system (RCV) would increase voter turnout while eliminating the need for any runoff election, and give 3rd party candidates who have not received years and year of corporate funding a fighting chance.

  9. Gerald Decker says:

    Look, this anti-progress voting block will continue to drive things until citizens say ENOUGH and out-vote them.

  10. Steven Crounse says:

    I think the Gentleman continuing to bring up the point about “anti-progress voting block” is confused on his assumption. I don’t think the progressives and environmental conscience folks in Fernandina are “anti- progress” What they are is diametrically opposed to urban sprawl, which we are seeing more and more of on this Island. Progress isn’t the number of dwelling we can put on Amelia Island. It’s the Quality of Life, Better Education for our Children, Quality of Jobs and Living wages for our people. and a safe environment for us all. Growth for growth sake is wrong. I don’t think anyone would trade this town for Hilton Head. Which is the way we are headed. ps. I like the idea of primaries in Aug.

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