BILL SMITH, BSMITH@NEWS-PRESS.COM Published 1:24 p.m. ET Oct. 17, 2017 |
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A group of activists seeking to change the way voters elect county commissioners launched its push Tuesday to gather the thousands of signatures needed to getting the issue on the ballot.
Lee Voter Freedom qualified in August to begin a petition drive to get the question of turning the county commission into a nonpartisan office on the ballot
The question would amend the Lee County charter to end the partisan primaries that critics say can take more than half of registered voters out of the process of electing commissioners.
Supporters of the effort want to end the current practice, in which party primaries are open only when there is no opponent in the general election. A controversial court ruling several years ago held that the emergence of a write-in candidate is enough.
Dick Anderson, who unsuccessfully challenged Commissioner Larry Kiker in the 2016 election, is leading the drive.
Anderson challenged Kiker in the Republican primary, but the last minute emergence of a write-in candidate kept anyone who is not a registered Republican from voting in the party primary, which Kiker won by about 1,000 votes.
“Do you want your right to vote for county commissioner taken from you?” Anderson asked at a news conference and rally outside the Old County Courthouse before the bi-monthly commission meeting.
“If you support a system that takes the right to vote from over 200,000 voters in Lee County, it might be legal, but it’s not ethical,” Anderson said.
Lee County’s charter provides that the signatures of 7 percent of the voters registered for the last county election must sign the petitions for put the matter on the ballot. On Election Day 2016, there were 423,882 registered voters. That means 29,672 signatures need to be gathered in the to get the question before voters.
To make up for signatures that might be declared invalid for various technical reasons, organizers have a goal of securing 36,000 signatures to provide a comfortable margin of error.
County commissioners also can order the question be put on the ballot but have shown no inclination to do so.
Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass defended the current practice last week, noting that he had lost a primary to former Commissioner Brian Bigelow several years, ago, and then won election after Bigelow’s resignation.
Pendergrass said that he won by continuing to remain active in community groups during the time between his election and the election to replace Bigelow.
Supporters of the question contend there are no partisan issues when county commissioners address such matters as fixing roads and hearing zoning issues.
Kiker said, however, that the political party may say something about a candidate’s philosophies on things such as taxes, spending and property rights.