Alachua County voters on Tuesday narrowly approved a historic modification in the county’s governance that is likely to bring significant changes to the debate and implementation of public policy.
The outcome of the hotly contested change to a single-member district system was not clear until votes were counted in most precincts.
Under the new system, voters in Alachua County will now vote for their county commissioners by district and no longer at-large.
Tim Marden, a Newberry city commissioner, said this is an opportunity for more rural parts of the county to have a seat at the table because their voices will be heard.
“I am not so much happy for myself, I am really happy for the public at large,” Marden said. “It is a relief that people were finally able to voice their opinions.”
County Commissioner Ken Cornell said he feels it is better representation when people are able to vote for everybody, but that the citizens said something different tonight.
“We will deal with what we have,” Cornell said. “We have a new form of how we will elect commissioners in the future so we will just look at it.”
Selection of the county district members was previously at-large. All Alachua County voters contributed toward all five commissioners’ selection. Now through single-member district voting, the district that the voter lives in is the sole district seat for which the voter’s ballot will be cast.
After Tuesday night’s elections in Districts 1, 2 and 4, the incoming commission will consist of five Democrats and now zero Republicans.
This is the first time that the issue, discussed in the county as recently as 2020, has gone to a vote and allowed Alachua County voters to decide. Tuesday’s tight result shows that after a significant debate, voters are still split on this matter.
Marden said that there have been efforts to try to pass this referendum in the past and that it was finally time that people got an opportunity to vote on single-member districts.
“It was a terrible thing that the county commission worked so hard from keeping people from being able to vote on this,” Marden said.
He said he was not shocked with the close election results, but he is happy with the overall result.
Alachua County commissioners were not happy with the change or the idea behind the referendum. They voted unanimously in December 2021 to oppose the referendum.
Cornell said he had a feeling this was going to happen when the unanimous vote resulted in going forward with the referendum, but he was not shocked by the close vote. He kept saying how he just wanted to ensure that the majority of the voters got what they wanted.
“The most important thing is giving the people what the people want,” Cornell said. “I am pleased that they were able to vote tonight on this referendum.”
District 5 Commissioner Chuck Chestnut also did not want the referendum to pass.
Since the 1980s, the NAACP has nationally fought for single-member district representation in order to represent racial minorities in places where they are less likely to be elected. Chestnut said the same doesn’t apply to the county.
Chestnut said that Alachua County might encounter the opposite effect because it would be difficult to create a district with a Black majority because Africian-Americans are spread throughout the county.
The local NAACP chapter said it planned to pursue legal action for what it called deceptive political advertising for single-member districts.
Advertisements in support of the referendum quoted Chestnut and District 9 state Senate candidate Rodney Long as if they were in favor of the proposed change when they are not.
Nicholas Barrett, 21, lives in Alachua County and said he was happy that the measure was approved, because now he feels like the county will represent north central Florida properly.
“I do not identify with either party, but I know that it is fair to be angry as a Republican,” Barrett said. “If a whole county wants one thing, but Gainesville’s (part of the) county is outweighing overall representation … it is not fair.”
Rep. Chuck Clemons put the single-member district question in motion earlier this year by introducing the bill in the state House, and the legislature ended up passing it.
He now says that he is glad that he brought the vote because it was always difficult to understand what the people of the county really wanted without allowing them to have a vote on single-member districts.
“I testified in three committees and on the floor of the house because people are unhappy with the county commission and their level of representation,” Clemons said. “It showed at the ballot box tonight.”
He said he just wanted the people to be able to decide who is their county commissioner.
Marden and Clemons are happy with this overall ruling because they both believe that this will result in better representation in Alachua County’s local government and because the people were finally heard.
Marden said that he is interested in what is to come next.
He is curious if the county commission will redraw district lines since it is still their responsibility to draw them. It is possible that Republicans would be able to elect more commissioners.
Sandra McDonald contributed reporting.