Update On Teresa Jacobs Battle For Nonpartisan Elections

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Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs announced that the county plans to take its case against the property appraiser, sheriff, and tax collector all the way to the state Supreme Court. The legal battle is over the matter of nonpartisan elections in Orange County for constitutional officers and if they are legal or not.

To give a little background, the Orange County Board of Commissioners created an ordinance in 2014 that would present an amendment to the Orange County Charter to make elections for the county’s six constitutional officers nonpartisan. The amendment was presented before voters in November of 2014, and it passed with 71% of the vote. 

Three of the six constitutional officers sued to challenge the new ordinance. A trial court struck down the portion of the ordinance that dealt with nonpartisan elections. The county appealed and was granted a stay. In December, a Florida Appellate Court ruled that the amendment presented to make constitutional officers nonpartisan was “contrary to state law.” The ruling meant that all constitutional officers would remain partisan.

As a retort, Mayor Jacobs stated that the county would take its case to the state Supreme Court on behalf of the voters and that the “will of the electorate” is at stake. In her remarks, Jacobs mentioned that the will of the voters’ isn’t being followed due to the lawsuits brought by three of the six sitting constitutional officers and that political affiliations shouldn’t impact how property is appraised or how taxes are collected.

While the mayor certainly is entitled to her opinion on the matter, she does not have the right to overrule state law.

Jacobs said that voters overwhelmingly supported this ballot initiative and that nonpartisan elections allow for bipartisan appeasement. Both statements deserve a more nuanced exploration. It’s also worth noting that during a scrum with the press after her announcement, the mayor noted that without partisan elections, she wouldn’t have gotten elected to the Orange County Commission. That’s conjecture, and isn’t anchored to anything lawful or factual.

When the question was posed to voters, it did receive a positive reception as 71% of voters who chose to answer the amendment supported it. 28.51% did not.

But looking at the numbers a little closer tells a different story. Many voters decided to bypass the question, and others seemed to be confused on the question. We can tell this because of the Orange County Supervisor of Elections as the agency tracks under and overvotes. An undervote is when a voter decides to skip a question on the ballot altogether, and an overvote is when the voter makes more than one selection on a ballot question. 

During the 2014 general election, voters were asked to vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ for County Charter Amendment Question D (Providing for Term Limits and Non-Partisan Elections for County Constitutional Officers). While the overvotes were low, just 79, the undervotes were extraordinarily high as more than 31,000 voters decided to skip the question. That means that over 15% of voters either did not care about the question or didn’t understand it. 

At the time Orange County had 723,428 voters registered. 43% of them turned out to vote during the general, which means that less than half of Orange County’s voters felt the need to decide to alter the county’s charter to allow for nonpartisan elections of constitutional officers and to vote on other races.

If only 200,000 of them voted for Question D, that’s just 27% of the county’s electorate. That’s not necessarily the will of the people, and it certainly doesn’t represent a mandate. 

These numbers are independent of the law and what the mayor believes is the will of the voters. As the trial court and appellate court determined, “a county cannot legislate in a field if the subject area has been preempted by the Legislature.” In essence, the Florida Legislature forestalls the method and timing of elections for constitutional officers, so the county has no legal authority to alter how these elections are conducted per section 97.0115 in Florida Statutes. 

Moving on to nonpartisan elections, they are supposed to serve as a way for voters to select candidates without the influence of political parties. Clean in theory, dirty in application. Numerous studies have been conducted about nonpartisan elections and its impact on voters. A study conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law revealed that these types of elections in New York City could depress voter turnout, reduce the chance for minorities to elect candidates they want, and increase the “importance of candidates’ wealth and fame.”

Other studies on nonpartisan elections have suggested that partisan elections tend to have a higher turnout due to party labels. Also, because candidates are still allowed to register with political parties in nonpartisan elections, that does not stop either party from supporting its candidates monetarily.

Simply put, nonpartisan elections do not deter gridlock and aren’t useful ways to diminish partisan influence.

Taking a cue from the Fifth District Court of Appeals and the trial court before, I fully expect the state Supreme Court to rule in favor of constitutional officers and the law set by the Florida Legislature.

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Leon Aprile is a pseudonym for different freelance writers that submit articles to OPO.

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