By Arlene Filkoff
On the Fernandina Beach City Commission agenda for Jan. 17 is an item that looks quite innocuous. If you are removed from city politics and what goes on around our five commissioners and charter officers, and if you are swayed only by the argument of saving money, you might think it’s a good idea. The item states:
CODE AMENDMENT – ELECTIONS – ORDINANCE 2023-05 AMENDING THE CODE OF ORDINANCES BY AMENDING CHAPTER 34, ELECTIONS, SPECIFICALLY AMENDING SECTION 34-1 TO CHANGE THE CITY GENERAL ELECTION DATE TO COINCIDE WITH THE STATE PRIMARY ELECTION DATE (AUGUST) AND AMENDING THE CITY RUNOFF ELECTION DATE TO COINCIDE WITH THE STATE GENERAL ELECTION DATE (NOVEMBER); REPEALING SECTION 34-9 DUE TO ELECTION FOR MAYOR PROVIDED IN CITY CHARTER; AMENDING SECTION 34-10 TO CHANGE DATE OF ANNUAL ORGANIZATIONAL MEETING TO COINCIDE WITH NEW CITY GENERAL ELECTION DATE; PROVIDING FOR SEVERABILITY AND PROVIDING FOR AN EFFECTIVE DATE.
(Synopsis: Changes the date of the City’s general and runoff elections to coincide with the state primary and general election dates and repeals Section 34-9.0)
Our city charter (our constitution) speaks to the need to have a general election and if needed, a runoff election. The state of Florida and Nassau County hold primary elections in August of an election year. Since Fernandina Beach is, as defined by our charter, a non-partisan government, we hold no primaries.
The city pays for a runoff election when one is required. That’s because in the past, whenever we have three or more candidates running for the same seat, and since we require, (also per the charter) that a winning candidate have the majority of the vote, it is almost guaranteed that no one will win the general election.
The charter is reviewed every few years to keep up with societal changes and to ensure that the governance of the city is in line with the population. A committee is appointed by the commission to conduct this review and the work begins.
I served on the last charter review committee and was honored to do so. The document itself is not that long but to ensure that it is clear requires quite a bit of work. Because the charter does reference an initial and a second election (runoff), the committee discussed this change as a possibility to save money.
There appeared to be too much concern about potential negatives to make this recommendation as part of the charter review. We were advised that a change didn’t have to go to voters because there are no actual dates in the charter itself, just reference to a general and a runoff election.
Those of us who opposed this change did so with the following rationale:
- The Nassau County primary is often called the Republican primary since so few people of any other party ever participate in county elections.
- The primary for those candidates who are currently on the state and county ballots require that you be registered in the same party as the candidate you vote for to have your vote count.
- Based on data received from the Supervisor of Elections, the breakdown of Fernandina Beach voters by party is: 5665 Democrat, NPA or Other; Republican 5292.
- Many people think they must be a registered Republican to vote in Nassau County primaries. If they aren’t registered Republicans, what is the likelihood of them showing up?
- This move would combine our city elections with all state and federal primary elections. Supervisor of Elections data supports the statement that many Nassau voters will vote in the federal and state contests and not in the municipal election. So they leave blank anything local on their ballots.
I have reached out to the city to determine the amount of savings to be achieved. The answer I got was “best guess” between $25,000 and $30,000. Have no commissioners asked for a more exact estimate?
Further, are we assured that this change can be easily accommodated by the Supervisor of Elections and its systems? Have we asked?
It’s all about perception, right? This change can be perceived as a move to diminish voter turnout among other than Republican voters.
This, added to the declaration of party by candidates during our most recent nonpartisan election, has the potential to make our elections partisan moving forward.
If there is just the slightest possibility of any of this happening, why would officials elected to represent all Fernandina Beach citizens make this change? Just because we can do something, should we?
If saving money is the true objective, there are many other ways we can save money rather than disenfranchising our electorate. Ask any city employee.
(Arlene Filkoff is a former Fernandina Beach City Commission member and mayor.)