Submitted by Mike Harrison
March 20, 2015 9:54 a.m.
Observer readers will recall the Legislative Delegation hearing in Yulee in January when Sen. Bean and Rep. Adkins voted unanimously to carry a bill to Tallahassee to change the charter of the Ocean Highway Port Authority (OHPA) to require their elections to be Partisan. The Observer’s archives contain extensive postings on the topic, the majority of the comments condemning the notion of partisan elections for a local agency such as OHPA. The arguments against partisanship followed three main threads:
- Party affiliation should play no part in the management of our Port; we just need the best qualified candidates.
- Partisan elections disenfranchise electors who are not affiliated with the majority party in the constituency; the processes surrounding Primary Elections and Write-In nominations means that about 46% of the Nassau County electorate does not get to vote on who will be on the OHPA commission.
- The inclusion of party affiliation on the ballot sheet encourages people drawn to the polls for the headline races to vote ‘party’ if they have no other basis of choice. This built-in bias discourages non-majority candidates from running.
On March 1, 2015 Rep. Adkins formally filed the bill to make the change at Tallahassee. It now carries the title House Bill (HB) 1201 and can be tracked at www.myfloridahouse.gov. The bill is required to be voted ‘favorable’ by three consecutive committees, before it is presented to the Legislature for voting, most likely as part of a Consent Agenda. Failure to pass any of the committees kills the bill.
The first committee meeting was held on Wednesday, March 18th at 8:00 am. I went to Tallahassee for the meeting. Rep. Adkins introduced her bill, Commissioner Richard Bruce of OHPA ‘waived in support’ (meaning that he did not actually say anything but rather waived his right to speak and wished to be recorded as supporting the bill). I spoke and was given a good hearing. The thrust of my message was that the proposed bill does no good and may actually do harm by weakening the electoral process, denying qualified candidates to OHPA, and marginalizing the 46% of the electorate who do not feel that they have a hand in electing people to OHPA. When the question was put, the vote was 10-3 in favor of the bill.
It now has to appear before the Government Operations Subcommittee. If it passes there, its final review is at the Local & Federal Affairs Committee. No dates for these meetings had been scheduled as I write. (FO will publish dates as they become available.)
There is a danger that the bill will be voted on along party lines. For me, it is important to recognize that the harm to the electoral process comes not from whether Republicans or Democrats dominate a particular electorate, but rather it is the chilling effect that the process brings to the non-majority electorate. So it is not a Republican/Democrat issue, it is an electoral process issue. This is borne out by the strong opposition to partisan election at OHPA that has been expressed by community leaders here of all parties.
It is possible that the ‘process’ argument may resonate well with the Government Operations Subcommittee, given its oversight of …the Division of Elections within the Department of State, and the Florida Elections Commission. … (House Directory p. 69)
Readers are encouraged to tell the members of these committees their opinion on whether OHPA elections should be partisan. If readers cannot be physically present at the Capitol, e-mails are certainly better than nothing; my guess is that such emails will be more effective if they are not sent until a meeting date has been set, and certainly will be strengthened if the writer incudes their party affiliation. We cannot expect more than 24 hours’ notice of the meeting, although we can hope for more.
For many people, HB 1201 can be summed up as ‘fewer candidates; fewer voters’ – not a good reason to change the law.
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Mike Harrison is a resident of Old Town and a member of the city’s Historic District Council. He and his wife Jennifer are actively engaged in many civic endeavors to improve their neighborhood and the city.