MANATEE -- Despite pleas from speakers to provide more time for public vetting, the Manatee County Commission voted 6-1 Tuesday to cut the number of polling locations by almost 30 percent.
Commissioners OK'd plans submitted by Manatee Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett to trim the number of polling precincts from 99 to 69.
Commission Chairman Larry Bustle and Commissioners Robin DiSabatino, Betsy Benac, Vanessa Baugh, Carol Whitmore and John Chappie all voted in favor.
Commissioner Michael Gallen, the board's sole Democrat in whose district the largest percentage of precinct closures will take place, voted against.
Bennett, previously a Republican legislator, drew fire from those who complained his plan would inconvenience minority and poorer voters while benefitting more affluent areas.
"We all know what this is about is voter repression period," said Lou Murray, vice president of the Democratic Black Caucus.
He noted the area losing 50 percent of its polling places is heavily Democratic, and questioned how fragile senior citizens without trans
portation would be able to walk to polls 3 miles away during summer's heat.
Gallen said he voted against the plan out of concern consolidation would hurt voter turnout.
"Many elderly and disadvantaged citizens live in this area, and I'm concerned about them," said Gallen.
Also objecting was Geneva Presha of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which promotes civil and human rights.
"We are at a time when we need to encourage involvement and participation in government," she said. "We don't feel we're engaged."
Bennett's plan did include five new polling places and three new early voting sites. He is also changing the precinct numbering system, he told commissioners meeting Tuesday at County Administrative Center.
"We didn't make these decisions lightly," he said.
Some polling places are inaccessible to the handicapped or lacked parking, Bennett said he found when he began surveying sites last fall.
Since voters increasingly favor early voting and vote-by-mail arrangements, Bennett said he based his decision to close precincts partly on those factors.
Washington state and Oregon vote entirely by mail, and no longer operate polling places at all, Bennett said.
Budgetary considerations were also part of the decision, he said.
Savings accrued from closing polling places will be used to buy new high-tech equipment to provide a ballot-on-demand service to those who prefer to vote early during the eight days leading up to Election Day, he said.
Commissioner Betsy Benac suggested a vote on the plan be delayed until Feb. 25, but Bennett said he was running on a tight timeframe and asked the commission to approve his plan immediately.
He said he had done his best to meet with various groups and listen to their concerns. All plans were made openly, he emphasized.
"I don't know what else I can do," he told the commission.
Commissioner Vanessa Baugh was sympathetic, saying: "I think it's very important we get everything done, and I think you have covered the bases as much as you can."
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.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.