Political Equity or Unrest

Under The Hood

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY APR 13, 2019

Since Sarasota County voters in 2020 for the first time in years will elect only the county commissioner for their district, boundaries will matter more than ever. So should the county reapportion now instead of awaiting census results? Commissioner Nancy Detert thinks so.

In one way, she has a point, but such a move could open up a much bigger box of woe. The key issue for Detert relates to equal representation. County commission districts aren’t near equal in population. Her plan will fix that.

Normally, district lines for such political districts get redrawn once a decade after the census. “It’s smarter to do it right now,” Detert told me. She stressed county lines never mattered before. With single-member districts just approved by voters, they do.

I’ll quibble a little. County districts always mattered for residency. It’s how we guarantee a seat on the board for a Venice area resident like Detert, and prevent Sarasota area politics from dominating county affairs more than it already does.

But I grant Detert this. Nobody took county redistricting too seriously until now. I compared voter registrations from the 2012 elections (after the last country redistricting) to those last November. The districts are more out of whack now than they were six or seven years ago, but not by as much as I expected.

Then and now, District 1 was the least populated while District 5 had the most voters. Back then, there was a divide of about 10,700. Today, the split sits around 16,000.

Detert wants to apply the same standard as used for reapportioning by Florida Legislative districts, a process the former lawmaker was a part of in 2002 and in 2012. That’s fair.

But it’s also a curious point because in the year 2018, state House members were elected by wildly different populations.

Looking at my most recent Where The Votes Are analysis of November results, state Rep. Will Robinson won in District 71 election where about 72,600 people voted. State Rep. Margaret Good won in District 72, where more than 82,100 voted. Indeed, Ray Pilon, who Good defeated, won more votes than Robinson.

State Rep. Tommy Gregory’s District 73 race saw almost 103,900 voters turn out. Meanwhile, just about 91,600 voted in District 74, where James Buchanan won.

Does any of that seem fair? Perhaps not, but what can you do? All those districts were drawn before 2012—back when Detert served in the Senate—and haven’t been touched since. A lot of growth in Lakewood Ranch means Gregory simply represents more people—for now. There will be fresh census figures in 2022 and representatives will again serve similar populations.

I wish more care had been put into redistricting county lines in 2012. The county should definitely be careful with reapportionment leading into 2022. But to redraw lines before then? It’s hard to imagine this won’t be seen as the Mike Moran Protection Plan, a politically driven effort to help the one Republican commissioner undoubtedly hurt by single-member districts in 2020.

Another thing to consider. Whenever district lines shift for a body with staggered terms, some voters end up moving districts and missing an entire election cycle. Imagine a District 2 voter who doesn’t vote for any county commissioner in 2020, then lines get redrawn and she’s in District 3 come the 2022 cycle and also misses the chance to vote.

If lines get redrawn in 2022 elections, it’s likely some voters get tossed around so much they go three elections without getting to vote for a county commissioner once.

I don't doubt Detert’s motives. While she concedes she did not support Single-Member Districts, she’s trying to do something fair. She’s likely a frontrunner in her Venice area seat no matter what. But I’m not sure this effort to avoid legal exposure or representation inequity won’t create more of exactly those things.

Jacob Ogles is senior contributing editor for SRQ Media Group.

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