Are district elections intrinsically Republican or Democrat issues?
Sarasota County Commissioner Christian Ziegler, who also serves as Republican Party of Florida vice chair, has framed a vote on a local referendum in distinctly partisan terms. His home is a Republican County. He argues a 2018 referendum switching to single-member district elections was a Democratic scheme, and voters on Tuesday should turn that back. He has also turned to a typical network of conservative support to rally around the issue.
But Lee County Property Appraiser Matt Caldwell, a state committeeman for the party, sees the issue as a violation of democratic ideals with a lowercase ‘d.’ In fact, the history of at-large elections involved silencing voices from the political minority, meaning Florida Republicans in a not-that-distant past.
The disagreement over a relatively wonky issue blew up into an inter-party argument in the final days before a Special Election in Sarasota County. Ziegler expressed disappointment that a private conversation ended up leaked to the media but held resolve on the importance of Sarasota moving back to countywide elections as a matter of importance to party members.
The argument seemed prompted at first by an email blast from Ziegler. He noted there that the Republican Party of Sarasota had endorsed a referendum placed by county commissioners on Tuesday’s ballot.
“Single Member was pushed by the Democrats to create Democrat majority seats because they haven’t won since 1966,” Ziegler wrote. He also noted figures like U.S. Rep. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican, and Sheriff Kurt Hoffman had endorsed the referendum, which if it passes will mean county commissioners once again are elected through countywide votes starting this November.
As he has campaigned for the issue, Ziegler stressed the importance of Republican leadership on the Commission.
“In Sarasota County, we have almost 47,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats,” he said. “We have the second lowest taxes in the state. We support local law enforcement. We didn’t back mask mandates or shutting businesses during COVID. And now we’re literally the top place in the country where people want to move to or visit.”
That may be a bit of a superlative but U.S. News and World Report did just put Sarasota in the top 10 “Best Places To Live,” and the locale regularly makes similar lists. To Ziegler, there’s a direct correlation between decades of all-Republican membership on the County Commission.
Of course, Ziegler’s not just an impartial observer. His first term on the Commission ends in November, and whether he has a clear path to re-election could depend on Tuesday’s election. His district, since he first won office in a 2018 countywide vote, has been redistricted. As of book closing ahead of the Special Election, Democrats hold a plurality advantage, with 25,790 registered voters compared to 23,474 Republicans. Ziegler hasn’t filed for re-election but has said he feels confidence in his chances either way. Still, running countywide in a GOP-leaning county would be different atmospherics than if voters stick with single-member districts.
Caldwell doesn’t live in the county, but for what it’s worth, he’s no fan of changing the system back for the sake of the majority party. In fact, he has worked for years to get Lee County to change to single-member district elections and will make a push to a local charter review board this December to put the matter out for consideration.
“Supporting at-large districts spits in the face of the leadership in our party that worked for decades to undermine the immoral Democratic machine in Florida and this was a key plank in that fight,” Caldwell wrote in an email.
He told Florida Politics the history of at-large elections broadly can’t be left out of a conversation, even a hyperlocal one.
“For anyone who has taken the time to review the court briefings when single-member districts or at-large districts have been litigated, if you don’t come out absolutely convinced at-large elections are fundamentally a Jim Crow-style electoral structure, I don’t know what to say,” he said.
He notes the Florida Legislature once had multimember districts, but that changed in the 1980s after a lawsuit by, in a case of strange political bedfellows, the Republican Party of Florida and the NAACP. The two groups worked together because both at the time spoke for minorities denied a political voice in Florida for decades.
A look at history backs up that interpretation. From the creation of a new Florida Constitution in 1968 until the state redistricting process in 1982, Florida state Senators could be elected in multi-member districts, a system explicitly employed to diminish the power of Republican and racial ethnic blocks, according to historical research by MCI Maps. Indeed, Democratic Sen. George Firestone in 1976 told the Tampa Bay Times ominously that single-member districts would lead to senators being replaced by “a senior citizen Representative, a Black community Representative, a condominium Representative, and a Cuban-American Representative.”
Through the 1960s and 1970s, legal threats continued to mount against any type of single-member districts. At this point, it’s legal precedent that if a county has a high enough percentage of Black voters, it must employ some form of single-member district voting. While charter counties like Sarasota are by default at-large, counties that don’t willingly adopt single-member districts are often eventually forced to do so. Caldwell knows of no cases of at-large elections, when challenged, prevailing in court.
For the record, Caldwell also objects to holding a major governance vote in a March Special Election, and feels equally opposed to holding a taxation issue like the Sarasota County school tax appearing on the ballot the same day as countywide elections.
When Caldwell served in the Florida House as State Affairs Chair, he heard talk of forcing every county to switch to single-member voting. That never ultimately came to fruition. “But I never entertained any moves backward on this issue,” Caldwell said.
Of note, as Sarasota Republicans push for a return to countywide elections, Republicans in the Legislature have pushed for a ballot initiative in Alachua County, a Democratic county, that would switch County Commission elections there from countywide to single-member districts.
Beyond the issue itself, Caldwell in his letter asserts a state party leader using his position to rally support on a local issue isn’t proper.
“This is yet another example of why you cannot serve in the leadership of the party and in elected office,” he wrote by email. “You are pushing an issue here that is important to your personal elective ambitions.”
Ziegler, for his part, dismisses that as ridiculous. While the party benefits from a host of volunteers and activists, he said it’s also critical to have leaders that understand the inner workings of government.
“It’s a bad idea to discourage party leaders from serving in local government,” he said. “It only helps advance the Republican Party if we have more people who respect the power of grassroots and understand our platform and principles to be elected to local government.”