Mannix About Manatee: County Commission should have held voter forum

February 16, 2014 

"Do you read the stories about the people in Africa? The people in the desert, who literally walk two- and 300 miles so they can have the opportunity to do what we do -- and we want to make it more convenient?"

Mike Bennett must rue the day in May 2011 when he said those words as a Republican state senator.

Especially this past week.

Now Manatee County's supervisor of elections, Bennett presented a strategic plan Tuesday to dramatically streamline the county's voting precincts -- cutting them from 99 to 69 -- while adding five polling places and three early voting sites.

The new arrangement actually has logistical merit, adapting SOE resources to meet the growth in public preference for early voting and voting by mail.

Yet the downside of Bennett's blueprint is striking and makes people with long memories recall those inflammatory words of three years ago, not to mention his career as a partisan Florida legislator.

Fifty percent of the closed polls are in District 2, which is heavily minority and poor.

It is also the county's only Democratic district.

Hmmm.

Can you say, "Voter suppression?"

Turns out District 2 has the lowest voter turnout in the county, and Bennett, doing his due diligence, met with those community leaders. They agreed, he said, with the practicality of closing polls with the lowest turnout and reassigning affected voters to the nearest precinct.

District 2 was also given another new early voting site.

Interestingly, just days after drawing fire over his announced plans, Bennett is reconsidering closing one of those polls.

Only time will tell how it shakes out.

Which brings up the County Commission's role in this volatile issue, specifically its hasty vote Tuesday -- Republicans 6, Democrats 1 -- to approve Bennett's plan.

Betsy Benac proposed delaying the vote until Feb. 25, but the elections supervisor said he was on a tight timeline.

Excuse me, but the primary is still six months away and the general election nine months.

What's the rush?

Even though Bennett met with the NAACP, League of Women Voters, the political parties and the county commissioners during this process, there was never any public debate.

People were not given time to absorb the details and comment accordingly.

The county commission could have -- and should have -- provided that forum.

You'd think this state's shameful reputation on restricting access to the polls would have given the commissioners pause, making them proceed slowly.

Nope.

You can bet they would have allotted the time to hear the concerns of one of our big-shot developers.

But set aside the time to hear some poor matriarch's complaint about how her poll closing will inhibit her ability to exercise her constitutional right to vote?

Sorry.

It's disgraceful.

Eliminating so many polling places is going to inconvenience somebody, and one voter lost is one too many.

Oh, that anecdote Bennett used about people in Africa walking 200 to 300 miles across the desert to vote?

It's bunk.

It's more like one to three miles, according to published reports.

Bennett won't be telling that one anymore.

Mannix About Manatee, by columnist Vin Mannix, is about people and issues in Manatee County. Call Vin at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix

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