MANATEE -- The Manatee County Commission on Tuesday voted 6-1 to approve a cut in the number of polling locations by almost 30 percent, despite pleas from speakers to delay the plan to provide more time for public vetting.
Commissioners OK'd plans submitted by Manatee Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett to trim the number of precincts from 99 to 69.
Voting in favor were Commission Chair Larry Bustle and commissioners Robin DiSabatino, Betsy Benac, Vanessa Baugh, Carol Whitmore and John Chappie. Voting against was Commissioner Michael Gallen, the board's sole Democrat and in whose district the largest percentage of precinct closures will take place.
Bennett's plan drew fire from those who complained that minority and poorer voters will bear the greatest share of the inconvenience.
We all know what this is about is voter repression ... period, said Lou Murray, vice president of the Democratic Black Caucus.
He noted that the area that will lose 50 percent of its polling places is heavily Democratic precincts, and questioned how fragile senior citizens without transportation would be able to get to polls three miles away during summer's heat.
Bennett's plan also called for five new polling places and three new early voting sites.
The supervisor of elections also will be changing the precinct numbering system, he told commissioners meeting Tuesday at County Administrative Center.
In a letter to commissioners included in the agenda, 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."
Gallen said he voted against approval of the plan because it might discourage the elderly and economically disadvantaged, who may already find it difficult to vote in a neighborhood precinct.
Bennett said his staff had carefully scrutinized every precinct being closed, looked at its turnout over the last year, its parking and accessibility.
Plans call for new precincts at Renaissance on 9th, 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.