TAMPA — The debate over whether "Rep" or "Dem" should be on the ballot alongside the name of candidates for sheriff or property appraiser is now in the hands of Hillsborough County voters.
Hillsborough County commissioners voted 5-2 Wednesday to hold a referendum on making the elections for the five county constitutional officers non-partisan. If approved by a simple majority in the November general election, it would apply to the races for the offices of clerk of the court, property appraiser, tax collector, sheriff and supervisor of elections.
Ironically, the vote to remove partisan politics from those elections divided the commission along party lines. The plan was backed by all five Republican commissioners and opposed by the board’s two Democrats.
Republican Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who introduced the proposal, said non-partisan elections make sense because an increasing proportion of the county’s voters are registered as independents and can’t vote in closed primaries. In an era marked by extreme partisanship, this could also help restore voters confidence in their elected officials, he said.
"The big change is the discord and distrust being created in politics," he said "This was a pragmatic decision."
But some Democrats view the move as a reaction to the county’s increasingly Democratic-leaning political climate and an attempt to protect Republicans. In 2016, Democrats won all four countywide races on the general election ballot, with victories for incumbents Bob Henriquez in the property appraiser’s race and Clerk of the Court Pat Frank and a surprise victory in the state attorney’s race for newcomer Andrew Warren.
Hillsborough Democratic Party Chairman Ione Townsend said non-partisan races would deter people from voting and lead to more down-ballot drop-off where people cast voters only in the high profile races that tend to be on the first page of the ballot.
"The absence of party labels is confusing to voters as they look for candidates who shares their values and ideals," she said.
Election results bear that out. Some 565,000 Hillsborough residents voted in the partisan countywide Commission District 6 race in 2016. Almost 100,000 fewer votes were cast in the nonpartisan race for Hillsborough County School Board District 7 that was on the same ballot.
Only about a dozen other Florida counties have non-partisan races for constitutional officers, county officials said.
That includes Orange County, where an appellate court has sided with the sheriff, tax collector and property appraiser who sued to restore their right to run as Democrats. The case may be heading to the Florida Supreme Court.
Two Republican officers, Sheriff Chad Chronister and Tax Collector Doug Belden, have publicly said they favor the switch to non-partisan races.
But the move is less popular with some of the county’s Democratic officers, who questioned how the public would benefit and the timing behind the move.
Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Bob Henriquez, a Democrat, said his office and duties are already non-partisan.
"Now it seems the political winds are blowing in a different direction,’’ he said. "The same folks that wouldn’t have been in support of this now are."
Clerk of the Court Pat Frank offered an even more blunt assessment of the motives behind the switch. "Carrying the Republican label is a negative right now," Frank said. "There is a blue wave moving and there is concern about that on the part of Republican office holders."
Still, the strongest condemnation of the plan came not from Democrats but about a half-dozen Sun City Republican Club members who drove to Tampa to protest the plan. Wearing red T-shirts with their club logo, they said political affiliation was the single most important detail for voters when deciding who to back. The result will be fewer people voting, they said.
"If you vote yes on this action, you’ll be making a mistake, one that will haunt Hillsborough voters for a very long time," said member Betty James.
Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.