MANATEE -- Candidates for the post of Manatee supervisor of elections discussed early voting, voter fraud, and their own qualifications for the job during a debate Thursday.
Republican state Sen. Mike Bennett; write-in candidate Rodney "Smokey" Smithley; and Democrat Charles Williams, Jr. faced a panel of questioners during the debate, sponsored by the Bradenton Herald and METV.
The forum at METV Studios was among a series focusing on Manatee County's key races that will be featured in the Herald and broadcast until the election Nov. 6.
All three candidates expressed admiration for years of glitch-free elections during the tenure of current supervisor Bob Sweat.
Last winter, Sweat announced he would retire following the November election after 28 years.
Herald Executive Editor Joan Krauter wanted to know what technical skills each candidate brought to the job, and what each one's primary goal was.
Smithley, 58, a master glazier, said if he is elected, he would keep the same trustworthiness for which Sweat is respected.
He was concerned about voter fraud, which he thought needed to be fixed.
As a church pastor, Williams, 49, said he knew how to work with people, and would try to encourage voter participation.
Bennett, 67, a businessman, said he has operated firms for decades and is adept at training and hiring employees. He added that the office's budget comes from the Manatee County Commission, with which he said he had "an extremely strong relationship."
Bay News 9 reporter Summer Smith asked whether voting should be difficult, or as easy as possible, and how would each candidate encourage voting.
"I would encourage voter participation every opportunity that I have," said Williams.
Voting should be made readily easy for those who are eligible, he said, adding "the record shows there has not been any fraud going on in Manatee County, and some of it is just a smokescreen."
Smith asked Bennett about his statement last year on the floor of the state senate, when he said that voting is a hard-fought privilege and asked, "Why would we make it any easier? I want 'em to fight for it."
Bennett replied that his comments "came out heated, and sometimes in the heat of discussion, things can get kind of twisted around."
He said voting has become easier and easier, with expanded days and hours, but the turnout does not change.
"In the heat of discussion, I was saying, 'Maybe we should go back to making it harder, maybe we would get a bigger turnout,'" he said.
Smithley said "it's a tragedy" that only 20 percent of the voting public voted in the primary election.
He suggested teaching about voting at schools and at community forums to get people "back to voting."
"So many people do not feel that our system is true to vote anymore, and we've got to get that back," he said.
Herald Editorial Page Editor Chris Wille noted that Florida's new elections law cut back early voting by a week, closing the polls the final Sunday before the Nov. 6 election, which could affect minority voters.
He asked why Florida should not have more than one week of early voting.
Bennett replied that current election laws allow a Sunday of early voting. (It would fall on Oct. 28).
"We still have a Sunday in there," replied Bennett. "They can still have their organized rides down to the polls to vote, we did not take that away."
Smithley said the number of early voting hours remained the same but was spread over fewer days.
"I feel by cutting them down those four days, they're not going to be able to early vote, is saving the taxpayers and our office money," he said.
Easier ways for people to vote are fine, but they have contributed to fraud, he said.
Williams thought the original early voting schedule, which would have kept polls open on Sunday, Nov. 4, just before the election, would have been better.
"The citizens think they were robbed of a whole week of an opportunity to vote earlier," he said.
He recalled that in 2008, churches had very large turnouts.
"To take that week away from them, I think it hurt us."
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @saraswrites.com.