INDIAN RIVER COUNTY ― Indian River County commissioners are engaged in a redistricting process that may alter the boundaries of the county’s five districts.
While each commissioner is required to reside in his or her district, voting for commissioners is “at-large”, meaning that each commissioner is elected by all voters in the county, not just those residing in the commissioner’s district. Some residents would like that system changed so that only voters who live in a specific district will elect that district’s commissioner.
As an example of how at-large voting can dilute representation, Indian River County has 54,526 registered Republicans and 30,399 registered Democrats. To some, fair representation should result in roughly one-third of the commissioners being Democrats, while two-thirds of the commissioners would be Republicans. But at-large voting makes it virtually impossible for someone publicly identified as a Democrat to win a county-wide election, even if that person may be able to win a specific district.
According to an example suggested by the Indian River Democratic Club, “Candidate #1 must reside within District #1 to be a candidate for District #1. Candidate #1 receives a clear majority of the votes from the voters in District #1. Candidate #1 would normally be the winner of the election in accordance with the will of the voters of District #1. However, Candidate #1 could lose the election, depriving the voters of District #1 the representative they voted for because voters from all other districts within the county also vote for District #1, diluting the District #1 vote.”
Some community activists say the at-large system makes it very difficult for Black or Hispanic candidates to be elected county-wide. If commissioners were elected only by the voters of one district, they say it would be more likely for voters from Gifford or Fellsmere to elect more diverse candidates.
According to the county’s Plan for 2021 Redistricting of Indian River County Commissioner Districts, “No district shall be drawn to split or minimize the political influence of any group of residents,” and “Neighborhoods and other communities of interest shall be included within a single district, rather than split among two or more districts.” While these two redistricting criteria indicate a goal of not diluting the representation of communities, some say the at-large system does just that.
Al Griffiths is a local activist who would like the county to change from at-large voting to single-district voting. According to Mr. Griffiths, “A lot of folks miss the discriminatory nature of at-large voting. That is because when folks hear the word ‘discriminatory’ they probably think of it in just racial terms, but depriving anyone or any group of their constitutional rights as Americans is discriminatory. In the case of at-large voting, it is the voters within any single district who are being discriminated against if they do not get the representation they voted for by a majority.”
“The core principle of American representative democracy is the voters decide who will represent them,” Mr. Griffiths said. “Not voters from somewhere else. That is why at-large voting was banned in federal elections by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In Florida, statewide voting for federal offices, U.S. Senator and U.S. House of Representatives, must be single district under federal law. All other statewide offices in Florida are single district. Yet some counties still use the antiquated at-large system for county offices. For some reason, Florida has not banned at-large voting but in some counties where it has been challenged in court, at-large voting has been struck down on the basis of discrimination, using the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 as precedent.”
The county’s five commissioners are Susan Adams, District 1; Joe Flescher, District 2; Joe Earman, District 3; Peter D. O'Bryan, District 4; and Laura Moss, District 5. Hometown News contacted all five for their opinion on the at-large issue. The two who replied emphasized their preference to represent the entire county, not just one district.
Commissioner Peter O’Bryan sent Hometown News a statement in which he endorsed the continuation of at-large voting for commissioners.
“I support the at-large voting currently being used in Indian River County,” Comm. O’Bryan said. “If you go to a single district system, then it becomes an ‘every man for himself” type board. If it were single district, I wouldn’t give a hoot if something bad happened in say Sebastian or Fellsmere, where the county would have to spend dollars to fix something. I might even vote against it because I would want those dollars to come to my district. So everything becomes a fight among the commissioners for limited resources, and I think leads to more uncivil debates among the commissioners.”
“Even if we were to go to single district voting, Gifford (population 5,000 or so) would still be in a district of approximately 32,000, so it wouldn’t necessarily provide any greater benefit to Gifford,” Comm. O’Bryan said.
“Currently, under at-large voting, all commissioners serve all residents. About half the calls and walk-ins we get is someone wishing to speak to ‘their’ commissioner. But the other half are looking to talk to ‘any’ commissioner. If I’m the only commissioner in the office and someone comes in from Sebastian, I don’t believe it’s good service if I tell them, I’m not gonna help you, you have to wait until your commissioner comes in. Representing all the residents, I have and will continue to serve anyone who calls or walks in the door.”
“Finally, as representing all of the county, all five commissioners can focus more on big picture, visioning types of concepts,” Comm. O’Bryan said. “Where do we want the county to be in 20 years? How do we bring about jobs and affordable housing for all residents?”
Comm. Laura Moss also emphasized the importance of elected representatives working for everybody in the county. Comm. Moss said she has always focused on the broader constituency, even when she was technically just representing the city of Vero Beach.
“I’ve always gone everywhere in the county, from the day I took office,” Comm. Moss said. “From the very first week, as soon as I became mayor, I was in the city, I was outside the city, I was everywhere, which is how I think you get things done. You represent everybody.”
According to the county’s plan for 2021 redistricting, the schedule for redistricting is as follows:
Between Aug. 17 and Oct. 19 county staff, working with the supervisor of elections and municipal representatives who wish to participate, will develop conceptual district maps. Upon development, the maps will be posted by the county and supervisor of elections on their websites and at their facilities.
On Oct. 19, a public hearing by the commissioners will discuss the conceptual maps, solicit public input, and provide final instructions to staff for the development of a final proposed map.
Between Oct. 19 and Dec. 7, county staff will develop a final proposed map and post it online.
On Dec. 7, a final public hearing will discuss the map, solicit public input, and adopt a final district map.
Residents who wish to offer input to county commissioners on the at-large vs. single district issue may attend and speak at the public hearings. Residents may also email their comments to all commissioners via the county comment form located at www.ircgov.com/forms/commission/commission.php.
For more information about voting in Indian River County, visit www.voteindianriver.com.
For more information about the Indian River Board of County Commissioners including meeting agendas and minutes, visit www.ircgov.com.