Kathy Kidder: Pros and cons of the referendum to move city elections

Published: Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 7, 2013 at 11:21 p.m.

It's election time again, and Gainesville voters will have the opportunity to adopt changes to our municipal elections. On March 19, all registered voters in the city of Gainesville are eligible to vote for mayor and for a proposed charter amendment. Registered voters living in District 4 will also select a commissioner.

In an effort to increase voter turnout, which averages less than 20 percent for municipal elections, the Gainesville City Commission has sent to voters a referendum which would move city elections to the fall of odd-numbered years rather than spring of every year and would expand terms of office from three to four years. The idea of fall elections has been long discussed and was recommended by Gainesville's 2005 Charter Review Committee.

Residents may wonder why the commission chose the fall of odd-numbered years instead of even years, which would coincide with county, state and federal elections. Although considered, that plan raised concerns about lengthy ballots, competition for media and voter attention, inability to control the election date and complex election administration.

Supporters of the change believe that more voters will turn out because they are accustomed to thinking of fall as the time for elections. While no hard evidence documents this perception, there is also no serious concern that the change would decrease voter participation.

Other suggested benefits of changing the election time are: 1. Potential reduction of voter fatigue that occurs when elections occur soon after a lengthy fall campaign season, 2. A consistent election date that does not depend on spring break or presidential primary schedules, and 3. More time to alert and educate voters.

One undisputed benefit would be the cost savings from holding elections every two years instead of annually. Currently, Gainesville contracts with the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections to administer the elections since county supervisors are not required to conduct municipal elections.

Critics of the proposal argue that 1. Turnout is unlikely to be affected by the change since participation depends more on the issues at stake and quality of the candidates, 2. A spring date allows voters to focus on the city election at a time when distractions are fewer than in the busy fall season, and 3. Campaigning might be affected since it will begin in summer, when many residents are away.

Even-numbered terms are necessary if biennial elections are adopted. Current officials' terms would not be lengthened or shortened. During the transition, terms would be either 3 or 4 years until four-year terms and fall elections begin in 2017. The transition would be complete by fall 2019. The two-term limit would remain in effect.

Opponents of four-year terms prefer the right to vote on officials at shorter intervals. Also, the current three-year staggered terms promote continuity because a majority of the commission is never replaced at one time.

Supporters of four-year terms cite the advantages of giving elected officials more time to learn their jobs and become effective commissioners. City Commission terms would also be consistent with County Commission terms, possibly reducing voter confusion.

The League of Women Voters of Alachua County/Gainesville has not taken a position on this amendment. We encourage voters to consider the issues and make an informed decision.

Registration has closed for this election, but voters can still update their address, signature, or other information at www.votealachua.com.

Educating the electorate and protecting the democratic process are cornerstones of League of Women Voters activity. Whatever candidate or issue you support, the important thing is to vote.

Kathy Kidder is president of the Alachua County/Gainesville League of Women Voters.

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