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House panel votes to allow state to set municipal election dates

in Statewide/Top Headlines by

A House panel approved a bill Thursday morning that would reshape the timing and electorate of Florida’s local elections.

The bill, PCB SAC 16-04, would preempt local authority to set the date of municipal elections, granting the ultimate say-so on when they are held to state lawmakers.

Bill sponsor Rep. Matt Caldwell chairs the State Affairs Committee which passed the bill Thursday in its first stop along its way to a vote before the full House, after an hour of discussion.

Debate focused on issues of voter turnout, home rule and the logistics of local elections.

Under current law, cities and counties decide for themselves when to hold elections. Many municipalities choose to avoid long ballots and “voter fatigue” in November presidential and congressional elections by holding separate votes, often in the spring.

The arrangement leads to better-informed voters showing up to elect their mayors and commissioners, as some opponents pointed out, but also to turnout rates of about 10 to 15 percent, considerably lower than the 50 percent or more who come out in general elections.

Mayor of North Miami Beach George Vallejo stopped by the Capitol hearing to offer comments opposing the bill.

“We don’t like it when Washington sends us mandates from above and tells us what to do about an issue that doesn’t cross state lines,” said Vallejo, who also sits on the Florida League of Cities‘ board of directors.

“I liken this to the same principle. This is a bill that is going to tell the people of a municipality how to run their elections,” said Vallejo. “This is strictly an issue that doesn’t cross city boundaries.”

Other opponents aired concerns the November timeline would infuse a partisan aspect to the state’s nonpartisan local elections.

Supporters of the bill such as Hillsborough Rep. Shawn Harrison, who also began his career in city politics, said such concerns are outweighed by the increase in voter participation the bill would likely create.

“It’s likely we will see a tremendous voter falloff by the time they get to the ballot. But there’s no doubt that more people will be showing up to cast a ballot,” said Harrison, who joined the majority in supporting the measure. “I think this is such a fundamental right that we should err on the side of increasing voter participation.”

The bill contains a provision to allow a county to hold their elections on an alternative date if all cities within the county agree on one.

There is currently no companion language to the bill circulating in the Senate.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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