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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

How one Nov. 8 referendum changes future Alachua County Commission elections 

Commissioners will be voted by district

Voting in Alachua County will look different in future elections after a referendum item passed in the Nov. 8 election despite the wishes of the Alachua County Commission.

County commissioners will now only be voted in by residents who live in the commissioner’s district, due to a charter amendment creating single-member districts. It passed by a margin of 2,567 votes, or 2.9%.

Previously, commissioners were elected at-large, meaning residents voted in every county commission race regardless of if they lived in the district they were voting for.

The Alachua County Commission unanimously voted against the referendum in December 2021. Florida House Bill 1493, filed by Republican state Rep. Chuck Clemons in January, forced the item onto the county ballot.

Ed Braddy, former Gainesville mayor and chair of the Alachua County Republican Party, ran for District 2 County Commission and lost. However, he won in some respect with the passage of single-member districts — a key platform point he ran on throughout his campaign. 

The new single-member district system helps preserve the voices of rural residents, he said.

“You’re actually going to have a representative who lives in the district and represents the interests of the district,” Braddy said.

The system has already seen success in Gainesville, he said. The Gainesville City Commission is mainly elected using single-member districts, while the mayor and two at-large seats are elected citywide.

Gainesville’s situation is much different, Mayor Lauren Poe said, as it intentionally has the single-member districting method to ensure minority representation in city office. Alachua County, he said, hasn’t struggled with the same representation issues.

“The county is in a different situation,” Poe said. “They have been able to consistently elect minority representation.” 

It’s unclear how minority votes would be impacted by the electoral change. In the recent general election, white voters accounted for around 65% of the vote countywide, according to the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections’ district demographics. 

Those against the decision fear single-member district voting discourages collaboration across different commission seats.

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District 3 County Commissioner Anna Prizzia said the vote encourages future commissioners to focus only on their district’s needs, removing a holistic approach to county governance.

“As a result, decisions that get made sometimes aren’t the best decisions for the whole county,” Prizzia said.

Beyond state involvement, campaign efforts in favor of single-member districts also drew criticism locally.

Targeted fliers quoting local Black public figures like District 5 County Commissioner Charles Chestnut led the local NAACP chapter to pursue legal action against the campaign, according to a WUFT report

Those against single-member districts felt the campaign was disingenuous and confused voters.

Evelyn Foxx, president of the Gainesville NAACP chapter, said the campaign misconstrued their stance on single-member districts.

“I think the PAC did an excellent job of confusing the voters,” Foxx said.

The single-member district campaign was funded by large, statewide Political Action Committees, with Leading for Our Future named on some campaign signs. 

Leading for Our Future spent about $81,000 in advertising across Alachua County since August,  according to the Florida Division of Elections, though it is unclear how much of that funding went toward single-member district advertising. 

Others in support of single-member districts felt campaigns were misleading across both party lines.

Diana Carlson, a 61-year-old Alachua resident and supporter of single-member districts, said the campaign was muddy across both aisles, as a person drew “no” over campaign signs in her yard.

“I think campaigns as a whole – local, state, national – need to be run clean,” Carlson said.

District 2 County Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler said given the state’s involvement and the concerted campaign efforts, commissioners may put the item up for election again.

“I think that there’s some talk of putting it back on the ballot in 2024,” Wheeler said.

To do so, the commission would have to obtain around 10% of the voting population’s signatures, according to the Alachua County Home-Rule Charter.In the meantime, the item is in effect immediately, meaning any future county commission elections will use single-member districts.

Contact Aidan at Follow him on Twitter @aidandisto.

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Aidan Bush

Aidan Bush is a third-year journalism major and the Spring 2024 Engagement Managing Editor of The Alligator. In his free time, he likes to listen to music and go kayaking.

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