New Manatee elections chief Mike Bennett calls for voting law changes

skennedy@bradenton.comDecember 20, 2012 

MANATEE -- Manatee's newly elected supervisor of elections Wednesday called for more early voting days and more flexibility in setting up early voting sites.

Republican Mike Bennett, who will be sworn in Jan. 6 as the county's new supervisor of elections, echoed remarks made to CNN by Florida Gov. Rick Scott on how to fix the state's embarrassing election day meltdown.

During the Nov. 6 general election, Manatee voters waited up to two hours at the county's sole early voting site; in some counties, the wait was up to six hours.

In 2011, as the president pro tempore of the Florida Senate, Bennett voted to cut back on the number of early voting days. "I don't have a problem making it harder (to vote)," he was quoted as saying. "I want people in Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in Africa who walks 200 miles across the desert. This should not be easy."

But now that he's about to take over as the county's elections supervisor, Bennett said Wednesday he would like to see the number of early voting days restored from eight to 14, and more flexibility given to local officials in choosing early voting sites.

Bennett also advocated new voter registration cards with photo ID's for all Florida residents, paid for by the state.

"I hope to be actively involved through the Association of the Supervisors of Elections to cure some problems," said Bennett.

His stance is in sharp contrast from comments Bennett made last year. "Do you read the stories about the people in Africa? The people in the desert, who literally walk two and three hundred miles so they can have the opportunity to do what we do, and we want to make it more convenient? How much more convenient do you want to make it? Do we want to go to their house? Take the polling booth with us?

"This is a hard-fought privilege," Bennett said in 2011, according to the American Independent. "This [voting] is something people die for. You want to make it convenient? The guy who died to give you that right, it was not convenient. Why would we make it any easier? I want 'em to fight for it. I want 'em to know what it's like. I want them to go down there, and have to walk across town to go over and vote."

Bennett is succeeding Bob Sweat, who is retiring after 28 years.

Scott, in defending his refusal to allow early voting on the last Sunday before the election, told CNN that he was simply complying with the law, but he added "We do need change."

In an interview with host Soledad O'Brien, Scott noted that Secretary of State Ken Detzner is working with the state's supervisors of election to create legislation to improve the process.

"We've got to go back and look at the number of days of early voting that we have," the governor said.

Meanwhile, testifying before a U.S. Senate committee, former Rep. Gov. Charlie Crist, a newly minted Democrat, criticized Scott for signing the law and failing to extend early voting when he had the chance.

"Florida, which four years earlier was a model for efficiency, became once again a late-night TV joke," he said.

Crist said in 2008 that he ordered early voting hours extended because of long lines, noting that he and his then-chief of staff, former U.S. Sen. George Lemieux, "figured out a legal justification."

Crist is a potential challenger to Scott in 2014. He dropped his Republican affiliation in 2010 when it became clear he would lose the GOP's U.S. Senate nomination to now-Sen. Marco Rubio. Crist opted to run instead without party affiliation but then lost to Rubio in the general election.

After campaigning for Democratic President Barack Obama this year, Crist officially became a Democrat last Thursday.

A Qunnipiac University poll released Wednesday showed Scott's job approval rating at a dismal 36 percent while Crist had a 47 percent favorable rating. The poll of 1,261 registered Florida voters has a 2.8 percent plus or minus margin of error.

"It is outrageous that it took a national embarrassment for Gov. Scott to see that his voting changes are wrong," state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who represents a part of Manatee County, said after Scott's interview.

"The problem is that many of us gave warnings of the pending election embarrassment, but the governor chose not to listen," said Rouson, who has proposed voting law changes.

--Material from the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031.

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