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.)

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Doug Mowery
Doug Mowery (@guest_66757)
25 days ago

Arlene…..you make good points, but I’m looking at this and thinking the change may increase turnout in both elections. Having the City runoff accomplished as a standalone election usually leads to a poor turnout. Although the runoff last month was a far better turnout than I expected, it was still noticeably less than the General election. On the flip side, the runoff as currently held does require a more energized, informed and dedicated voter……which is a good thing.

The money savings is too small to be a factor, IMO (it wouldn’t equal the value of benefits a single commissioner receives).

Who is proposing this agenda item?

Arlene Filkoff
Arlene Filkoff(@scarf845gmail-com)
24 days ago
Reply to  Doug Mowery

Doug, I don’t know who proposed it. I know that when he was part of the Charter Review Committee, Mayor Bean was a proponent of the change. When reviewing the data from this year’s general election, available on the Supervisor of Elections website under the Research tab, you will see that the Governor’s race and others at the top of the ticket received very few undervotes, but the City seats had a thousand or so undervotes. When we are lumped in with everyone else, there seems to be less attention paid. Thanks for reading and considering.

Arlene Fikoff
Arlene Fikoff(@scarf845gmail-com)
24 days ago
Reply to  Doug Mowery

Doug, I do not know who proposed it but Mayor Bean was a proponent when he was on the CharterReview Committee. Many do assume that combining elections with others might lead to a higher turnout. However, if you look at the 2022 genera election stats
on the SOE website you’ll see that there were about 1000 undervotes from eligible city voters who presumably voted on state offices but did not vote on any city candidates. Seems many people don’t see municipal as important when we combine. This is contrary to what we thought would happen when we aligned City elections with state and federal.

DAVE LOTT
DAVE LOTT (@guest_66814)
21 days ago

Any change in the city’s election schedule is bound to create controversy. Used to be that the City’s elections were in the Spring and stood alone. The advocates for this timing stated that concerned voters will still participate and the city elections would not get lost in the county/state and federal contests. The undercount numbers certainly seem to support a level of voter fatigue when they get to the city elections at the end of the ballot.. My recollection is that turnouts generally failed to exceed 30-35%. Those that wanted the change to coincide with the county/general elections argued for financial benefit (saving the cost of at least one of the elections) as well as having greater voter turnout. These were the same arguments for changing the terms of the commissioners to 4 years so all the city elections would coincide with the general elections. Argument for quantity over quality. The County Supervisor of Elections charges the City for the cost of running the run-off election so the most current election cost should be fairly easy to obtain from the City Clerk’s office.
There generally is a political motivation behind any changes to the election process where one group believes there will a benefit to their candidates and the other group believes it would be a detriment. Personally, leave the election cycle as it is.

Sheila
Sheila (@guest_66897)
15 days ago
Reply to  DAVE LOTT

Exactly, Dave. The number of undervotes is at least 1000 in many of the races. It’s a typical tactic of the GOP to use simple terms to justify solutions to complex matters to sway those who do not fully understand. “Increase Turnout” …maybe. Increase voter participation in City Elections…not so much.

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