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Would Changing Gainesville’s Election Date Increase Turnout?

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Alachua County voters who filled out ballots Tuesday did so in greater numbers than previous presidential primary and City of Gainesville elections.

Voter turnout rose to 44 percent, a figure between three and four times the participation numbers of the last three Gainesville mayoral elections.

In 2013, about 12,000 people voted in Gainesville’s mayoral election and about 2,000 in the District 4 City Commissioner election. This year, those numbers rose to nearly 28,000 and 5,000, respectively.

The organization Gainesville Votes! started a petition earlier this month to change the city’s election day.

Although the numbers of votes for mayor and city commissioner for District 4 increased this time, a proposal from Gainesville Votes! to push elections from March to August for an increase in voter turnout has reached the attention of supporters — 7,463 signatures are needed by May 29 for it to appear as an amendment on the November ballot.

“The reason for the [voter] increase is because it was on the same ballot as the federal elections,” former city commissioner Thomas Hawkins said. He suggested that if the Gainesville Votes! campaign is successful, turnout for future elections would consistently match last week’s numbers.

Hawkins led a Gainesville Votes! event on Monday at Gainesville’s Wyndham Garden.

“You see a very obvious trend,” he said. “We have a problem with folks turning out. The attitudes and ideas of our elected officials only reflect the ideas of about 15 percent of our registered voters. We have a much less representative democratic process.”

If passed, the amendment would take effect in the fall 2018 election.

The petition also asks that city elections be held during even-numbered years instead of annually and that commissioners serve, at most, two consecutive four-year terms instead of two consecutive three-year terms.

The proposed reform cites the model of Alachua County’s school board and Tallahassee’s city elections. Both occur in the fall.

“Gainesville Votes! says that over a period of four years, the city can save $742,000 from simply reducing the number of elections put on,” Hawkins said. “You get to piggyback on an existing election cycle, and more significantly, you have half as many elections.”

Hawkins also said that the ballot format and increased voter count on Tuesday is evidence as to why it’s such an important proposal and goal to accomplish.

But some voters and political leaders who attended Monday’s event still raised concerns.

Former city commissioner Jean Chalmers disagreed with using Tallahassee as a model because the focus there is more on the Capitol than the college community.

“It’s hard to make voter contact in July and August, particularly on local issues when a vast majority of the voters are out of town,” current Alachua County Commissioner Robert Hutchinson said. “I’ve always felt sorry for the school board and county commissioners who are slogging through neighborhoods knocking on vacant doors.”

Hawkins agreed that campaigning during those sweltering months is a disadvantage. Another concern includes having voters less attuned to local issues and candidates.

“The people that turn out in the spring, even though it’s a low percentage, they are the ones who really care and are informed,” Melanie Barr, who lives in Gainesville, said. “I’m afraid that those who vote in the fall, they’re just voting for the person whose signs they see.”

“They don’t know the issues. They just think, ‘Oh, this is a popular guy. I’m voting for him, too.’ So I like that people come out in the spring because they care and they’re informed.”

Current Gainesville Commissioner Todd Chase also had concerns about moving city elections to August. Local issues, he said, would be buried underneath the attention of larger elections.

“We’ve had this system for decades that has worked,” Chase said. “Is it more important that they look at those issues and understand what the people running for office represent? Or that on the fourth page of a long ballot, they go down the line and pick this person not having any idea who it is or what they stand for, instead only knowing who they want for president? We’re not gonna give local people the chance to really get their message out.”

Signature coordinators for Gainesville Votes! have begun compiling signatures to submit them to the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections.

About Allison Valdez

Allison is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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