Op-Ed: Voter turnout for Tampa's 2023 Municipal Election isn't good, and that needs to change

Where’s the FOMO?

click to enlarge Op-Ed: Voter turnout for Tampa's 2023 Municipal Election isn't good, and that needs to change
Photo via Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections/Facebook
Every election cycle someone lies to you and spouts some variation of “this is the most important election ever.” While this 2023 City of Tampa Municipal Election cycle is likely not the battle for all of our souls, it is still important. Too important for us as a city to have the genuinely appalling voter turn-out numbers seen so far.

As this writing, a meager 11, 190 Tampa residents have voted. Nickelback could draw a bigger crowd. The future of our city is at stake, but it would appear that many of us have no FOMO (or fear of missing out). So far, this election cycle is a sad indictment of Tampa’s appetite for civic engagement.

In 2015, the last non-competitive mayor’s race during the reign of Bob Buckhorn, 26,000 Tampeño’s voted. Buckhorn cruised to Gaddafi-like numbers, winning the election with 95.91% of the vote. At current math, we could reasonably expect even less ballots cast in 2023, despite our city having grown exponentially in the last eight years. It is conceivable that a city of nearly 500,000 could have its future decided by less than 25,000 individuals who took the time to mail-in a ballot, early vote, or hit the polls on Election Day March 7.

It's not that the candidates aren’t communicating. Through the City Council races alone over $1 million dollars will be raised and spent (yes, we’re looking at you Blake Casper).

And it’s not that Tampa doesn’t have real issues, take your pick: affordable housing, economic development, infrastructure, land use, water issues, who is going to replace Tom Brady at quarterback? Even in the absence of a competitive mayor’s race, there are still legitimate reasons for City of Tampa voters to be more engaged.
A lot of people scoff at City Council, calling it “a glorified zoning board”, but Tampa’s legislative branch can be more than a mockery if it chooses to be.

Tampa has two rather distinct paths to choose from, doubling down on Mayor Castor or divesting from her. In the absence of a real race for mayor, the City Council races have become a referendum on this administration. It would be great if we could have a real referendum about not just the surface issues this city faces, but future issues as well.

We can argue about affordable housing, debate development, litigate law and order, and talk wastewater ‘til it comes out the tap, but what about the conversations that we aren’t having? Where is the talk about diversifying our service-based economy? Being less dependent on growth? Investing in Tampa’s neighborhoods? Where is the vision for infrastructure improvement? To combat blight on major corridors? To preserve our local character, culture, and history?

These are the conversations we should also be having, but the voting numbers force one to wonder if we as citizens even care enough to have them.
Every candidate, every cycle talks about our potential as a city, but potential goes both ways. Tampa can become a place people go exclusively to escape taxes or the cold. If we don’t pay attention, our city can become a palm-tree clad Anytown U.S.A., another soulless sprawl of strip malls. Tampa is more than a cigar or a Cuban sandwich, more than being somewhere between the beach and Mickey Mouse, but for us to be that it requires us to care enough to vote.


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Jason Marlow

Jason Marlow is a local politico, President of Civilized Consulting and a Southeast Seminole Heights resident.
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