Redistricting in Sarasota County become one of the most controversial decisions by local government in the region. But the balance of district populations was first raised by a candidate for state House.
Donna Barcomb, a Sarasota Republican running in House District 72, voiced concern in January as a member of the Sarasota County Charter Review Board.
There, she discussed what she considered a flaw in a citizen-driven charter amendment implement single-member districts. She pointed to a substantial difference in populations between Sarasota’s most and least populous districts, where voter registration differed by around 17,000.
“That really isn’t fair,” Barcomb said then, “and if it had been explained, constituents may or may not have voted differently on that particular item.”
The fairly innocuous observation drew attention from critics od redistricting more recently. That’s because Sarasota County Commissioners cited single-member districts and unbalanced populations as a reason to redraw their own lines ahead of the 2020 Census.
Of special note, county commissioners early on discussed voter registration disparities, until consultants confirmed lines must be redrawn using total population, not just voters.
“She cited what is a misinterpretation of how/why redistricting is undertaken,” said Gabriel Hament, a critic of the redistricting process. “Redistricting is undertaken to balance total population, not registered voters as posited by Ms. Barcomb. Barcomb’s assertion that the districts are out of whack on the basis of registered voters was then repeated and advanced by both Commissioner [Nancy] Detert and Acting Chair [Jack] Brill.”
He referenced Detert, who lobbied aggressively to do redistricting this year, and Brill, the acting chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota. Detert and Barcomb are political allies, the former state Senator serving as a high-profile endorsement for Barcomb’s House campaign.
In Hament’s eyes, that connects Barcomb solidly with a political machine behind redistricting, which has been particularly criticized by Democrats.
That Barcomb accepted $1,000 from Bob Waechter, a political operative who submitted a proposal on which the final district map was based, made things worse.
But Barcomb said she wasn’t talking with anybody about redistricting when she raised the population issue in January. The discussion arose during talks of whether the Charter Review Board should vet citizen petitioned proposals.
“I had no contact with Nancy Detert about redistricting,” Barcomb said. “We have never discussed the topic. I have not followed the redistricting at all so do not have an opinion about it.”
What actually drew Barcomb’s attention to the population issue was an SRQ Magazine article (by this writer) looking at partisan breakdown of commission districts. While Barcomb said different observers could disagree on the efficacy of single-member districts, the population differences showed a problem.
“One of the consequences of single-member districts is the fact that with ever-growing populations most likely in District 5, there is going to be a continued need to adjust the boundaries,” Barcomb said.
Barcomb currently faces Republicans Fiona McFarland and Jason Miller in a Republican primary in Florida House District 72. Democrat Drake Buckman faces the winner in the fall. The Democrat-held open seat is one of the hottest battlegrounds in the state.