Plan to cut 30 Manatee County polling locations fuels outcry

skennedy@bradenton.comFebruary 11, 2014 

Staff Photographer

Manatee County Supervisor of Elections and former state Sen. Mike Bennett speaks during the recent Gulf Coast Builders Exchange annual dinner at the Polo Grill in Lakewood Ranch.File photo/PAUL VIDELA/Bradenton Herald

PAUL VIDELA — pvidela@bradenton.com Buy Photo

MANATEE -- A plan to cut the number of polling locations by almost 30 percent has drawn fire from those who say minority and poorer voters will bear the greatest share of the inconvenience.

Plans submitted by Manatee Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett to trim the number of precincts from 99 to 69 are slated for review Tuesday by the Manatee County Commission.

Also planned are five new polling places and three new early voting sites.

Bennett is also recommending the precinct numbering system be changed.

"I think the people most adversely affected by the changes were not taken into consideration," said Susie Copeland, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People president. "The more affluent community was left alone, and as far as their polling place, they didn't suffer same kind of closings as poorer neighborhoods."

The handicapped and those who lack transportation concern Manatee Democratic Party Chairwoman Patty Benson.

"Most of the people I'm worried about do not have bus service," she said. "Who's going to get these people there?"

Bennett said Monday he was "quite surprised" at the outcry because he met with NAACP, Democratic Party officials and each county commissioner, among others.

"This is the first I've heard anybody had an issue," Bennett said.

In a letter to commissioners, Bennett noted the number of residents who prefer to vote at the polls has dropped even though county population has increased.

"Voter turnout has not decreased," he wrote. "Voters are just choosing to use more convenient methods to vote.

"The trend across the entire state has shown a steady climb in early voting, and vote by mail," or absentee voting, he wrote. "This data gives me confidence that precinct consolidation is the right thing to do."

But Copeland said African-American voters are not embracing early voting and absentee balloting in high numbers.

"African-Americans are very leery voting absentee ballot," said Copeland. "They're afraid their vote won't be counted."

Democratic County Commissioner Michael Gallen's District 2, which includes most of Palmetto and central/east Bradenton, has the largest percentage of closed polling places.

"I do have concerns about the closings of the precincts, especially in District 2, where 50 percent will be closed," said Gallen.

The changes might discourage the elderly and economically disadvantaged, who may already find it difficult to vote in a neighborhood precinct, he said.

"I don't want this to lower the turnout," Gallen said. "Maybe it won't. Maybe it'll work out."

Bennett said his staff carefully scrutinized every precinct being closed, looked at its turnout over the last year, its parking and accessibility.

"We tried to pick locations that would better serve," he said, noting a new precinct at Renaissance on 9th would offer plenty of parking, accommodate lots of gear and people, and was on a bus line.

Plans call for other new precincts at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, Lakewood Ranch Town Hall, IMG Academy and Mount Raymond Baptist Church in Palmetto.

New early voting sites would be at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, Lakewood Ranch Town Hall and the Rocky Bluff Library, in addition to a previous early voting site at the Supervisor of Elections Office.

Benson said she understood why Bennett is making changes, but added -- even though she was consulted -- "no real changes" were made to accommodate her party's preferences.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.

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