71% of Florida County Voters Silenced in Dispute over Nonpartisan Elections

American politicians often preach about the righteousness of this country’s democratic principles. But how can we make claims that America is a model for democracy when even local politicians are vying to suppress the will of the voting public?

We’re not talking about this kind of thing happening in some backwater, either.

Orange County, Florida is a fairly prominent area —  in fact, it’s Florida’s fifth most populous county. 200,000 Orange residents passed a vote for nonpartisan elections in 2014, but four years later, candidates still run under party flags.

Tying Things up in Court

Like all counties in the United States, the local government adheres to a charter. Changes to that charter directly affect the way the county is run, and are achieved through amendments that voters can support or oppose during county elections every two years.

In 2014, a measure to amend the term length for six elected officials and change the nature of the election process from partisan to non-partisan appeared on the Orange County ballot. The term limits would be imposed at 16 years.

How can we make claims that America is a model for democracy when even local politicians are vying to suppress the will of the voting public?
Kate Harveston, IVN Independent Author

Non-partisan elections allow for two candidates who might be endorsed by the same federal party, or by no party at all, to compete against one another in primaries. The idea is that the people have the option to vote for the person they feel best represents them, without bringing partisan affiliation into the equation.

Voters passed the measure resoundingly. 71% were in approval of non-partisan elections and 16-year maximum terms, however, the decision was challenged when three sitting county officers, Sheriff Jerry Demings, Property Assessor Rick Singh and Tax Collector Scott Randolph, filed a lawsuit challenging whether the decision was constitutional using taxpayer dollars.

You may not be surprised to learn that the three offices involved in the lawsuit were directly affected by the results of the vote. While the charter amendment would have touched six offices in total, the comptroller, elections supervisor and circuit court clerk chose not to take part in the suit.

Muting the Voice of the People

What happened next is how the situation deteriorated to where we are now. Upon reviewing the lawsuit, Judge Keith White upheld the term limits but threw out the decision to make elections non-partisan.

But Orange County voters were not to be thwarted. They added two additional measures to the 2016 ballot to achieve their desired ends through alternative means.

It's frustrating to think that what is clearly a well-loved policy change has taken four years and two appeals to go nowhere merely because three officials whose federal backing might be at stake have challenged it.
Kate Harveston, IVN Independent Author

This time, the vehicle of public will was an amendment that changed the six positions in question from constitutional to chartered roles, these roles would not fall under control of the mayor or county commission.

The second new amendment held that the 2014 ruling would be reinstituted should the charter amendment pass.

Once more, the amendments each passed with 71% and 69% support, respectively. Once more, the three officeholders who challenged the initial amendment appealed the decision in circuit court and delayed the passage of these changes.

The delay was repealed, however, at the same time, the same court upheld Judge White’s ruling against the 2014 amendment. Effectively, things were right back where they started.

Kick the Can

Orange County’s Mayor, Teresa Jacobs, has been a supporter of non-partisan elections as a representative of her townspeople. At this point, it falls to Jacobs to drive additional appeals for these policies at the state Supreme Court level.

Technically, we see the democratic process at work here. However, it’s frustrating to think that what is clearly a well-loved policy change has taken four years and two appeals to go nowhere merely because three officials whose federal backing might be at stake have challenged it.

2017 saw Congress draw serious critique from the American people for turning its back on any semblance of honor in the way our political figures conduct themselves. It’s a precedent our president is promoting, and this is an example of precisely that playing out at the local level.

Make no mistake, if the people want to maintain their power in this democratic system, the fight begins in city and county governments like Orange County. This may be a more important symbolic victory than a literal one, which is all the more reason for Jacobs and the people of Orange County to stick it out.

Photo Credit: Renata Sago / WMFE