OUR POSITION: Sarasota County commissioners should wait until the 2020 Census to redraw district boundaries.

In a referendum last November, Sarasota County residents voted overwhelmingly to change the way they select county commissioners, switching from countywide voting to individual district-only voting. It’s a system that gives voters more say about their own district representative, presumably, but none over the rest of the five-person board.

We were against it, for a number of reasons, including the crummy one-for-five trade-off.

But, so it goes with democratic choice in the referendum process. The district-only system will be used during the 2020 cycle, when three of the five commission seats are up for grabs.

In preparation for the switch-over, the current board has decided to go with another idea we’re against: immediate, before-the-fact redistricting.

The decision is suspect; it will always be suspect to a sizable segment of the public who will be unable to view it as anything other than a power move by incumbents tilting the playing field — if not, in reality, engaging in gerrymandering. The perception of rigging is unavoidable.

There is no escaping the impression this is a move by Republicans to increase their chances of maintaining full control over local political operations. The Republican Party has for two decades had a lock on commission seats in Sarasota County, where registered Republicans far outnumber Democrats. With the new district-only system, though, the Democrats have a real shot at one or two seats.

The first is held by first-year Commissioner Christian Ziegler in Sarasota. The second is the more-competitive northern Sarasota District 1 seat now occupied by Commissioner Mike Moran, who is up for re-election. Registered Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans there — as the district is now configured.

Commissioner Nancy Detert’s first term from District 3 Venice-North Port also ends next year, but Detert is widely considered invulnerable. Venice-Englewood District 5 Commissioner Charles Hines will not run due to term limits, so that seat is open too.

Weeks ago, the incumbent commissioners directed staff to bring back district-by-district population estimates to see if current districts appeared lopsided. That was curious, given that redistricting is commonly done after the federal 10-year Census; the last one came a year after the 2010 Census.

Also curious was Detert’s rationale: “If we don’t do it before the 2020 election, whoever loses could potentially sue and say these districts were so out of whack …”

Seriously?

Detert also resisted calls from Democrats and groups such as the local League of Women Voters to, at the least, form an independent panel to redraw the lines, which would have been a reasonable fall-back.

Last week, county officials came back with updated population estimates, and they were somewhat skewed. The largest was 87,525 and the smallest 79,915. That’s a differential of less than 10%.

Again, these are estimates. Again, the actual count will be determined during the 2020 Census. Why not wait until the real numbers come in?

Politics. How can we expect voters to overcome the reality that commissioners who might benefit from a new map will be responsible for drawing the map lines before the election? How can voters be expected to overcome the perception the system wasn’t rigged?

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