Five districts or One Sumter?

By Jodie Munro O'Brien
Published August 1st 2004 in Leesburg Daily Commercial (FL)
Some political experts argue that having Sumter County government representatives selected through an at-large voting method could leave residents who live outside of The Villages without a voice in their county.

The population of The Villages retirement community would become the majority of the voters in the county, leaving the county natives as a minority group, says Jack M. Treadway, professor and chairman of the Department of Political Science at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.

Earlier this year, proponents of a group calling themselves One Sumter submitted petitions to the county to change the county commission back to an at-large voting system.

Sumter County residents elected their county commissioners through an at-large process — by which all county residents voted on all five county commissioners no matter which district the commissioners represented — until 1993.

“Under an at-large format, the minority group would be out-voted and probably not elect any of its members to office,” he said.

“The residents of The Villages (might) prefer at-large elections because it would give them the opportunity to control the county board. It is possible they could influence the election of four or five commissioners, instead of the one or two who would represent their geographic area under a district arrangement. Thus, the political clout of The Villages residents is enhanced by at-large elections, and reduced by district elections. The reverse is true for the rest of the county residents,” Treadway said.

Treadway and other experts agree that a power struggle between the two factions in Sumter County could be solved with one thing — compromise. Whether Sumter County residents return to an at-large voting district for their county commissioners or keep the single-district member voting will be decided during the Aug. 31 primary election. But that suggested compromise will not be an option.


To change or not to change?

In Florida, 37 counties use the at-large voting method, 23 have single-member districts, and six use a mix of both methods.

Lake County elects its commissioners through at-large voting.

The experts agree that, although there are merits to both forms of voting, the best solution is to have a mixture of both at-large and single-member districts.

Neil Berch, associate professor of political science at West Virginia University in Morganton, said a good compromise would be a combination of the two — for example, three commissioners might be voted in to represent single-member-districts, and the other two elected at large. This is also known as cumulative voting. [Note from CVD: The description above does not describe cumulative voting].

By concentrating their votes on a single candidate in this format, minority voters can achieve representation in proportion to their population, according to Alex Tabarrok. Tabarrok is director of research for the Independent Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Oakland, Calif., and a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

“A nice feature of cumulating voting is that it helps all minorities, however defined. District voting leads to the election of minority candidates only if the minorities tend to live in the same district. It does nothing for minorities spread throughout a city. Cumulative voting, in contrast, allows any group, be it African-Americans, dentists or conservatives, to cumulate their votes in order to achieve some representation,” Tabarrok said.

However, a mixed option is not on the ballot in Sumter County.

James Vike, associate professor of government and politics at Widener University in Chester, Pa., said when at-large voting was introduced, it was mainly intended to strip away the machine-like, one-party domination of urban areas. He said one advantage included that representatives would concern themselves with county-wide concerns, or the “general good,” rather than parochial interests.

“Representatives must appeal to a broader cross-section of the community,” Vike said.

He said there would also be less political entrenchment of elected officials.

Gene Beaupre, political science professor at Xavier University in Ohio, said the greatest advantage of cumulative voting is that residents can cast a set number of votes however they like, whether they put all their votes toward one candidate, split them up among a number of candidates, or in any such combination.

However, under One Sumter, this would not be the case.

Belinda Rivera, operations manager at the Sumter County Supervisor of Elections office, said in Sumter County voters could only vote for one person in each district, whether the voting method was at-large or single-member district.

This year, only commission districts 1, 3 and 5 are up for election.

“In a district, you would be voting for one person, but you would also have a smaller pool of voters,” Beaupre said. He said he would first favor the mixed method of voting, followed by the single-member district method.

On the other hand, at-large elections make it more difficult for minority groups to elect a candidate of their choosing, according to Tabarrok.

“Suppose a town is split into four districts and that most members of the minority live in District 1. Under district voting, the minority will be able to elect one council member of their choosing. The town council will thus have close to proportional representation, one minority-elected member and three majority-elected members,” Tabarrok said.

“But if the town switches to at-large voting, the minority group is unlikely to have any candidates elected. If four majority and one minority candidate run in the election, for example, each of the four majority candidates will out-poll the minority candidate by at least 3 to 1.”

Berch said at-large voting tends to diminish the voting power of any minority group, whether that minority is racial, ethnic, age-based or geographic, such as the locals in Sumter County vs. the more numerous residents of The Villages.

Vike said a down side to at-large voting is representatives are further from the people.

“(They) do not traditionally reach out to the community to the same extent that district representatives might. They are also less likely to provide valued constituent services to members of the community,” he said.

“Elected representatives inherently favor majority viewpoints and constituencies. This can lead them to ignore the unique and narrow, but not necessarily unimportant, concerns of some neighborhoods.”


Single-member districts

Single-member district voting enhances the political power of groups that are a minority across a jurisdiction, but a majority in certain districts, according to Treadway.

Berch said it presented a more personal form of government.

“If you live in a large city or county, and you need something in your district, you know who represents you,” he said.

Vike said the main argument for district representation is the belief that different segments of a municipality have different wants and needs.

“The argument contends that these needs are best dealt with through a system that provides a representative that is close to the people and empowered to fight for their unique interests,” he said.

Beaupre said candidates elected through the single-member district can be held more accountable for their decisions. “If you’re in a district, you probably go house to house,” he said.

“In Sumter County, those elected to office would be more likely to be held accountable to a geographic area and would be more likely to know the needs of constituents.”

Yet even the district form of voting has its disadvantages.

Treadway said the main disadvantage of single-member district voting is it could encourage commission members to focus on their particular part of the county, and not the entire county.

Tabarrok said another problem with district systems is that they invite gerrymandering, or the drawing of districts for partisan political advantage. He said representatives elected by district could have incentive to push for proposals that benefit their district, even at the expense of the town or county as a whole.

“District systems promote pork-barrel politics, especially when taxes are raised at large, but benefits are spent by district. Research indicates that spending and taxes tend to be lower in towns with at-large systems,” he said.

The district representative also becomes a gatekeeper, Beaupre said. That is, if the commissioner who represents a person’s district does not agree with the resident, the resident might find it difficult to gain support from a commissioner from another district.


Why the 1993 change?

Jim Allen, who served on the Sumter County commission from 1990 to 1994 and as chairman from 1993 to 1994, said that in 1993, residents presented commissioners with petitions to have the voting method changed from at-large to single-member districts.

“They wanted more representation in their districts,” Allen said. “At that time, The Villages were still breaking ground. There was concern that the commissioners elected at-large were not totally responsible to their constituents in their district, because they could be elected by others.”

Since 1994, Sumter residents have been able to vote for only one commissioner, the one that represents the district they live in. There are five districts in Sumter County.

In March this year, the original chairman of One Sumter and four-year resident of The Villages, Republican Dick Hoffman, presented county commissioners with petitions that included the required 3,604 signatures needed to be placed on the earliest ballot. The figure was based on 10 percent of registered voters in the county during the last general election. Hoffman said the collection of petition signatures began in July 2003.

Hoffman later stepped down as chairman of One Sumter to run for commission District 1, with Oxford resident Steve Munz taking over as chairman. Munz is an electrical contractor who said he grew up in Sumter County.

A political action committee called “The Villages for One Sumter Political Action Committee” was formed July 9 in support of the One Sumter campaign.

It was formed one week after other county residents formed a political campaign group called “Stop One Sumter” to fight the initiative. County Commissioner Jim Roberts heads Stop One Sumter, while John Blum, Democratic committeeman for Sumter County, heads The Villages for One Sumter Political Action Committee.

Opponents of returning the county system to at-large voting — mostly county natives — fear the developer of The Villages residential community would be able to control the entire County Commission, because the majority of votes would come from the part of the county with the highest population — The Villages. More than 32,000 homes are expected to be added to the Sumter County portion of The Villages, with buildout anticipated in 2010.

If the county changes to an at-large voting method, commissioners would still be required to live in the districts they serve, according to Bob McKee of the Florida Association of Counties based in Tallahassee.

Treadway said at-large elections empower majority groups and disadvantage minority groups, however defined. “Conversely, district elections advantage minority groups,” he said.

“At-large systems seem best for smaller, more homogeneous communities. In these cases, the search for the common good is less likely to encounter opposing interests that are separated along geographic lines.”