Closed precinct in minority district may get a reprieve

jajones1@bradenton.comFebruary 15, 2014 

Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett. SARA KENNEDY/Bradenton Herald

MANATEE -- The decision to close 30 of Manatee County's 99 precincts last week may not be totally set in concrete. But it's close.

On Friday, Supervisor of Elections Michael Bennett said he is reconsidering closing one of the precincts in a minority neighborhood after hearing concerns from Manatee NAACP and the League of Women Voters. But there appears to be no change of heart on the other 29 precincts.

Manatee County commissioners approved the reductions by a vote of 6-1 on Tuesday at Bennett's request.

Bennett cited a growing trend of voters casting absentee ballots, or taking advantage of early voting, rather than going to their precinct Election Day. The change in precincts was done in the face of changing voter patterns and to provide more early voting opportunities while staying within budget, Bennett said.

The move brought objections from Democrats and others concerned about reduced voter access to polls.On Friday, Bennett met with Susie Copeland, president of the Manatee County NAACP, and Rosalie Shaffer, president of the League of Women Voters of Manatee County, to hear concerns about voter access to polls.

Bennett told the Bradenton Herald he was reconsidering his decision to close one of the precincts in District 2 due to travel concerns.

"I met this morning with the League of Women Voters and the NAACP and I think we are making some progress," Bennett said. "If there is a precinct we have to adjust, I think we would do it. They pointed out one location. They were concerned about the driving and we are looking at it."

That precinct is No. 47, Rogers Community United Methodist Church, 1100 15th St. E., Copeland said.

"It was fair that he would keep that precinct open. That was necessary, I thought. That was a move in the right direction," Copeland said.

Shaffer said the closing of Precinct 47 would "put the people there at quite a distance to get to the precinct."

The Rev. Alan Jackson, pastor of Rogers Community United Methodist Church, could not be reached for comment Friday. But in a letter to the Herald, Jackson wrote that he was "deeply concerned" that shutting precincts "looks and feels like voter suppression and an attempt to marginalize low income and elderly voters."Despite that one reversal of a proposed precinct closing, the trend across the state and the nation is for fewer precincts, rather than more.

Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political scientist, said there has been an explosion in early voting and use of absentee ballots across the country.

"It's getting harder and harder to get secure precinct locations," MacManus said, citing liability concerns by businesses, access for the disabled, and challenges recruiting poll workers.

"There is a move nationally to more centralized locations," MacManus said.

Fourteen of the 30 precincts scheduled to be closed in Manatee were predominantly Democrat during the 2012 general election; the other 16 were predominantly Republican.

Bennett said party affiliation played no role in the precinct closing decision.

"No, I never even looked at it. We were as fair as much as we could be," Bennett said.

Factors included turnout, compliance with federal law on access for the disabled, and the availability of public transportation.

Precincts that had low turnout and didn't meet access standards were "fairly easy to eliminate," Bennett said.

"I had multiple meetings months ago with Republicans and Democrats, the League of Women Voters and the NAACP," Bennett said.

The revamped precinct system increases early voting sites from one to four, including two in County Commission District 2, and one each in District 1 and 5, Bennett said.

Carol Whitmore, at-large county commissioner, said Friday that at first she was hesitant to vote to reduce precincts. But after learning about turnout and access issues, she felt more comfortable with her vote.

"They were trying to make it fair to everyone," Whitmore said.

Michael Gallen, the county commissioner representing District 2, applauded Bennett's willingness Friday to take another look at restoring one of the precincts.

"That's good for the community," Gallen said. "My concern all along was access for the poor and the elderly. It is helpful in my mind that we have more neighborhood precincts. I am still taking this in. There is a lot of discussion out there."

Voter turnout for the 2012 general election ranged from 89 percent to 52 percent for the 30 polls chosen for elimination.

But that includes not only votes cast Election Day at the precinct, but votes cast during early voting and by absentee ballot.

Once those live votes at the precinct are backed out of the equation, the picture looks a little different. Voter turnout at the polls for the 30 precincts ranges from 61 percent on the high side to 24 percent on the low side.

The precinct with the lowest live turnout was No. 27, the Central Library at 1301 Barcarrota Blvd. W. Voters in Precinct 27 preferred to vote by absentee vote. Thirty-nine percent voted by absentee ballot, while 7 percent took part in early voting.

County Commission Chairman Larry Bustle said Friday that the adjustment of precincts is always in order when there are specific cases of undue hardship.

"There is nothing new about adjusting precincts," Bustle said, adding the changes make available more early voting sites and make it easier for more people come out to vote.

Bennett urged voters to contact his office by email or phone to request absentee ballots or to go to an early voting site in future elections. For more information, call 941-741-3823 or email info@votemanatee.com.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter: @jajones1

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