Can you be pro-democracy if you favor at-large voting? Don’t steal voting rights | Opinion

Al Griffiths

Guest columnist, November 26,2021


Our country is facing a critical challenge when it comes to voting rights. Free and fair elections are the bedrock of American democracy. Failure to protect voting rights places the heart of our democracy in grave peril.

Recently, we have seen many states with one party controlling majorities in their legislatures and the governor’s mansion passing legislation to restrict voting rights. The legislatures of these states are also passing laws to overrule election officials, empowering legislatures to reject the will of the majority of voters and appoint new electors, to throw out the legally cast ballots.

Here in Florida, the Florida Supervisors of Elections Association stated, “The Great American Experiment, our cherished democracy, is under threat. Our nation is only as strong as the faith our citizens have that their voice, their vote, has a say in our government. In this hour, public trust in our elections is being systematically undermined, to the detriment of all Americans.”

In Indian River County, a group of citizens have asked the County Commission to consider putting an end to the archaic relic of at large voting for county offices by putting the matter on the ballot for the citizens of Indian River to decide.

Some residents began questioning at large voting for as redistricting began to spotlight the absurdity of at large voting in individual or single districts. Many consider at large voting gerrymandering. I came across numerous legal scholars referring to at large voting as gerrymandering.

In Indian River County (and many surrounding counties), we have single districts. The fact that representatives must reside in a district to run for office in a district, making them the representative for that district, by definition creates a single district. Single districts may even be required by law.

Logically, voting should be single district to insure the wishes of the majority of each district are upheld by the vote.

The core principle of American representative democracy is the voters decide who will represent them. Not voters from somewhere else.

In Florida, statewide voting for federal offices, U.S. Senate and 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.

When people hear the word discriminatory, some only think of it in racial terms. But depriving anyone or any group of their constitutional rights is discriminatory. Voters, who by a majority, are being deprived of representation when their votes are being diluted by voters from another district, are being discriminated against.

In fact, to be opposed to at large voting should not be a political issue. No political group should want voters from other districts voting in their district.

Mike Winikoff of the Hometown News recently wrote:

“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 … ”

Two commissioners were quoted in that article as being in favor of at large voting, providing reasoning that avoided answering the discriminatory nature of at large voting.  I have received an email from one commissioner being in favor of at large voting, again not addressing the discriminatory nature of at large voting. Also,  two commissioners did not find the time to respond, which would only lead one to conclude they are not opposed to at large voting.

It is at times ironic, when one question is asked and an avalanche of related information is flowing in from the state and national level, one has to wonder: Do our local leaders actually support free and fair elections, the rule of law and, yes, democracy?  Based on the responses from our county commissioners, I wonder as well.

Al Griffiths, who moved to Sebastian from Connecticut in 2016, ran for Florida House District 54 in 2020. A past vice chair of the Democratic Executive Committee and Vietnam-era Navy veteran, he is president of the Democratic Club of Indian River County.