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Florida Republicans are prepping changes to local election laws and school board races

Tom Hagerty

For years, Florida Republicans have been trying to make local school board races partisan, but this may be the year it finally happens, if Florida voters agree. The move comes after a contentious election where Gov. Ron DeSantis targeted several local school board members as part of his ongoing effort to counter so-called “wokeness” in public schools. In addition to targeting school board races, Republicans also want to make it easier to recall locally elected officials who behave badly while in office.

Florida voters in 1998 decided to make their school board races non-partisan. Some 64 percent of voters approved Amendment 11—which also included other changes. The amendment went into effect in 2000 and has been in effect for 23 years. Rep. Spencer Roach (R, North Fort Myers) wants to ask voters to undo what they did in 1998. His bill would put the question on the 2024 ballot.

Critics are concerned that if voters say yes, it will close the primaries to non-party affiliated voters—and Roach acknowledges that’s true. But for him, the bigger issue is one of transparency: a party affiliation lets voters know where a person is likely to stand on an issue.

“There are real differences in party platforms about where the parties are on school curriculum, school choice, bathroom issues and young boys playing on girls sports teams," he said during a Wednesday House Ethics hearing on the bill.

The League of Women Voters of Florida's Cecil Scoon says the bill is an unnecessary injection of partisanship that could make board members focus more on pleasing their parties than doing what’s best for kids.

“The way people are behaving today, there’s such an allegiance to party…this is going to infect one of the basic community resources we have," said Scoon.

Lawmakers are also making changes to recall local government officials. Right now, the majority of counties, more than 40 of them, have no method to get rid of locally elected officials for bad behavior. But that could change under Rep. Joel Rudman’s bill.

Bay County Rep. Griff Griffiths is a former county commissioner. Griffiths says he’s backing Rudman on the issue because, while serving on the county commission—one of Griffiths' fellow commissioners refused to resign while under federal investigation. That commissioner was later forced off the board after getting indicted.

“There were several of us on the board that preferred him to resign," said Griffiths, but "he was advised by his attorney’s not to.”

Rep. Sam Killbew (R, Winter Haven) was the lone “no” vote on the recall bill.

“The other commissioners should be able to keep a bad actor in check," said Killbrew. "I think that citizens overall need to do their due diligence if they’re going to vote for somebody to know who they are and some of their background. But people tend not to do that as a whole.”

Still Republicans and Democrats found ground and advanced the proposal to the next committee.

Also moving forward, but with less Democratic support, is a bill that would require locally elected school board officials to become residents of the place they’re representing after they’re elected. For Equal Ground’s Jasmine Burney Clark, the proposal “props up transplants.” Under the measure, a person will have to move after they get the job.

“A candidate who is familiar with the local area will have an understanding of the issues that matter most to the local community, are more likely to be aware of the unique challenges and opportunities of the local community, and better equipped to address them because they’re actual residents," said Clark.

Bill sponsor, Rep. Kevin Steele (R, Dade City) denies that the bill promotes election shopping. He says it’s for people with legit issues.

“If your house burns down and you have to move across district lines, you’d no longer be in your district and couldn’t run in your home community.” 

Democrats were soundly against the measure but it still advanced with a majority of Republican support.

Copyright 2023 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.