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St. Petersburg should move its elections back to the Spring, but when exactly?

in Peter/The Bay and the 'Burg by
The numbers do not lie: in March of 2001, more than 34% of voters turnout to choose the Mayor of St. Petersburg. 34% is not an especially impressive showing, but it’s certainly better than the 26% who turned-out earlier this month. And that was for a Mayoral Election.

Consider the numbers when the Mayoral Race is not on the top of the ballot. In 2001, a paltry 12.77% took part in the city’s elections. By 2007, the number had fallen to an embarrassing 9.84%.

That’s right, less than ten percent of those even registered to vote decided who would sit on the City Council that has made or will make significant, city-changing decisions impacting BayWalk, the Pier, the Stadium, the Tampa Bay Rays, etc., etc.

It’s in these low turnout numbers that are prompting some inside City Hall to consider moving the date of St. Petersburg’s municipal elections back to the Spring. “We have to do something,” Councilman Karl Nurse insisted to me as we talked about how to improve the low turnout. Our conversation took place outside of a polling location, which is important to note because, with the exception of Councilman Nurse, Councilman Jim Kennedy and some firefighters volunteering for Kathleen Ford, no one else was around.

Councilman Nurse has placed a new business item before the City Council which would place a Charter Amendment on the 2010 ballot asking voters to move the date of the St. Petersburg Municipal Elections, including the next set of elections, to the Spring.

Moving the city’s elections back to the Spring would likely accomplish the goal of increasing voter participation and turnout, but so would putting the city election on the even-year ballots, as Councilman Herb Polson suggests. The problem with Polson’s idea is that local candidates and concerns will almost certainly get lost in the debate of state and national issues.

So why not go back to what was working? At least to what was working better than the current system. Schedule St. Petersburg’s Municipal Elections for the Spring, as Councilman Nurse suggests.

Well, not so fast. The rules governing early voting have changed since 2001. Ballots to overseas and permanent absentee voters are required to go out at least 35 days before an election.

Assume for a moment that St. Pete scheduled its elections on the same date in March the rest of Pinellas municipalities vote, usually the Tuesday of the third week in March. That means ballots would have to go out by around Valentine’s Day. But wait, St. Petersburg’s elections require a primary, which would have to be around February 1st, in order for there to be enough time for a general election. And that would require ballots for the primary going out right around Christmas — the absolute worst time for any candidate for campaigning.

Therefore, if Councilman Nurse is writing the language for his Charter Amendment, he should draft it so that St. Petersburg’s primary takes place on that third Tuesday in March, while scheduling the general election for the first week in May.

What are some of the benefits of this election calendar? First and foremost, it would shrink the length of the campaign period. While anyone would still be free to file whenever they want, voters focused on the state or national elections of the even-year won’t be paying attention, so there will be little incentive to actively campaign until those elections are decided. And what kind of candidate for municipal office would be crazy enough to launch their campaign over the holidays?

The Karl Nurse Election Calendar would pretty much force most candidates to wait to actively campaign until January, which is more than enough time for a candidate running for Mayor or City Council. A five-month election period (which would include a three-month primary) is Goldilocks…just right. In fact, many European and parliamentarian election systems run on this kind of schedule.

A compressed campaign schedule would be a case of addition by subtraction. Municipal candidates and the voters they are attempting to persuade would not be subjected to a year-long gauntlet of sparsely attended events and forums. And naturally, a compressed schedule would not cost as much money and, therefore, fundraising would be less of an issue.

Moving the St. Petersburg Municipal Elections to the Spring has many other benefits: candidates would not have to campaign in the blistering heat of June, July and August, which is when this year’s election was essentially decided and when voters could care less about politics. Mayoral candidate Scott Wagman twittered in May about how hot it was walking door-to-door and he’s absolutely right. Many residents even leave town during the Summer, hence the increasing number of absentee voters.

Scheduling St. Pete’s elections, at least the primary, on the same day as Pinellas’ other municipalities, would also encourage the Supervisor of Elections to open the Early Voting locations that were not open during the last election. For all those who live in St. Pete but work in other Pinellas cities, this would be especially convenient. The Supervisor would probably increase her budget for voter awareness advertising, which never hurts turnout.

I’m sure there are many other benefits I’m not even thinking about. But I am confident that uber-technocrat Karl Nurse is considering all of the options. But just in case he hasn’t thought of everything, Councilman Nurse consider this: if you plan on introducing a new business item calling for a Charter Amendment moving the Municipal Election from November 2011 to Spring 2011, remember the lines of the City Council districts first have to be redrawn, which can’t be done until the 2010 census is complete. That may not leave enough time to schedule the elections for the Spring. Nor would it be fair to ask candidates thinking about running in the Fall of 2011 to ramp up their campaigns with only a few weeks notice.

In fact, if Karl Nurse’s Election Calendar comes to fruition, candidates thinking about running in early 2011 or 2013 may want to start practicing their stump speeches now.

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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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