An unusual referendum on November’s ballot offers a change in how voters choose Alachua County’s commissioners.
Instead of an at-large election, where all Alachua County voters choose all five commissioners, the referendum asks if voters want to override the county charter and elect only one commissioner based on the district where they live, a process called single-member district voting. If the referendum passes, a voter living in District 1 would only vote for the District 1 commissioner instead of voting for all five.
The commission, which is made up of four Democrats and one Republican, is currently elected at-large. Single-member districts were discussed as recently as 2020, but the issue has never gone to a vote.
Now it will. This November will be the first time Alachua County voters can weigh in.
Several Alachua County commissioners, however, are not fond of the proposed change, nor the origin of the referendum. The commission voted unanimously to oppose the referendum in December.
District 3 Commissioner Anna Prizzia said the positives of at-large voting create options for constituents to express their ideas and concerns. Single-member voting, she said, would limit these opportunities.
“When you call the county commission now, you can call any of us and talk about your issue,” Prizzia said. “If you aren’t happy about how one commissioner is responding to your issue or if they don’t have the knowledge, the understanding and the commitment to that issue to do anything about it, you can call any other one of us.”
District 5 Commissioner Chuck Chestnut said the local NAACP chapter fought for single-member district representation in Gainesville’s city commission in the late 1980s to represent racial minorities in places where they were less likely to be elected. In Alachua County, he said a change might have the opposite effect, Chestnut said it would be difficult to create a district with an African American majority because African Americans are spread out around the county, not concentrated in one place.
“Single-member districts will not be good, in my opinion, for African Americans in Alachua County,” he said. “I think that we will lose representation.
Laura Moore, who lives in the city of Alachua, said she hadn’t heard about the referendum until she talked to WUFT News but said she thought a single representative committed to a smaller area would be more effective.
Moore said she previously lived in Columbia County, which elects commissioners via single-member district elections, and the commissioners were passionate about protecting the interests of their districts. She said she did not see the same urgency in the commissioners for rural Alachua County.
“They make decisions that work for Gainesville -- maybe not the rest of the county,” Moore said.
Most of the issues the commission deals with are county-wide, District 4 Commissioner Ken Cornell said, and single-member districts would result in political horse-trading and a lack of cooperation at the county level. He said when he spoke to constituents about the referendum, he would ask them a question: “If you and your single commissioner disagreed on a specific topic, who would represent you?”
“And the answer to that is, nobody,” Cornell said.
Each Florida county government chooses either single-member districts or at-large elections -- sometimes both -- to pick its commissioners.
The Florida legislature approved a measure, authored by State Rep. Chuck Clemons, in March to put the single-member district question to a vote, an anomaly in the way issues typically get on the ballot. Provisions usually make it on the ballot by a vote of the commission, a petition signed by 10% of Alachua County's registered voters or by the Charter Review Commission.
The review commission, which is selected by the county commissioners, last met in 2020 and did not act on the issue.
Prizzia said there is no discussion of single-member districts in Clemons’ other counties -- Gilchrist and Dixie, which vote at-large and are both majority Republican. Prizzia, Chestnut and Cornell said individually they believe the referendum represents an overreach by the Florida Legislature into the authority of Alachua County's local government.
“I think that we at the local level should determine how we’re governing our community,” Prizzia said. “We're the elected people of this community, and we should be the ones making that decision.”
Alachua County is a blue pond in the red ocean of north central Florida; it last voted Republican when President George H.W. Bush was elected in 1988. District 1 Commissioner Raemi Eagle-Glenn, who serves as the sole Republican on the county commission, lost the seat to Mary Alford in 2020 but was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis after Alford was removed from the position because she did not live in the correct district.
Gainesville makes up nearly half of Alachua County’s population, and each district, currently drawn to represent an equal portion of the county, intersects inside or near Gainesville.
Newberry city commissioner Tim Marden said the county commission is not representative of the county outside of Gainesville, where there are more Republican voters in towns like Newberry and the city of Alachua. He believes single-member districts would help promote representation of Alachua County’s smaller rural towns.
Marden began a rural movement for Springs County, which proposes to slice off a portion of western Alachua County and create a separate county that is more politically homogeneous. Several storefronts in the city of Alachua have Springs County pamphlets and even merchandise on display.
“Gainesville isn’t the county,” Marden said, “but they’ve got their thumb on the scale.”
He said he is hopeful the vote will pass and there will be better representation for municipalities that don’t have the same goals or needs as Gainesville.
Still, some people who live in the outer corners of the county, like Toni Fulton, say they believe single-member districts would restrict voters’ ability to fill more seats with candidates they would approve of. Fulton, who lives close to High Springs and the town of Alachua, said that while she doesn’t approve of the current commission, she thinks maintaining at-large voting would provide more opportunities for voters to fill commission seats with candidates they will support.
“I don’t think districts mean anything to them, so why should it mean anything to us?” she asked.
The issue is now in the hands of Alachua County voters. Early voting began on Oct. 24 and the general election is on Nov. 8.