Common Cause Florida reviewing Manatee voting precinct closures, official says

skennedy@bradenton.comFebruary 20, 2014 

Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett. SARA KENNEDY/Bradenton Herald

MANATEE -- A voting rights advocacy organization is reviewing a decision by Manatee County's supervisor of elections to close 30 of 99 county polling places.

"The whole thing smells bad," said Brad Ashwell, acting director of Common Cause Florida, a nonpartisan good government and election advocacy organization based in Tallahassee.

His organization is analyzing data to figure out "if this is potential suppression," he said.

One of the concerns about such closing polling sites is the possibility a pattern of "re-precincting" would be used as a voter-suppression tool, he said.

He recommended the Manatee County Commission slow down, and provide time for more public comment, he said.

"Everyone who testified said they hoped for workshopping or time for more public comment -- it'll affect a lot of voters," said Ashwell, referring to the county commission meeting Feb. 11 where the plan to trim voting precincts by 30 percent was approved.

Manatee County Elections Supervisor Mike Bennett, a former Republican legislator, said Wednesday he has not heard from Ashwell and has not decided on a final polling

precinct configuration.

"One precinct, we're still working on it," Bennett said. "You can't just move one precinct. It affects a lot of other stuff."

"We don't need the newspaper, or anybody else, to get ahead of the game, it causes trouble," Bennett said.

"We are working on it," he added.

Despite pleas from speakers to provide more time for public vetting, county commissioners voted 6-1 in favor of Bennett's plan.

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.

Speakers complained the change would inconvenience minority and poorer voters while benefitting those in more affluent areas. Bennett's proposal did include five new polling places and three new early voting sites. He is also changing the precinct numbering system.

In a recent memo to commissioners, Bennett noted Gallen's district, which includes Palmetto and parts of Bradenton, will have two early voting sites, more than any other district.

"... I assure you there was never any action by this office to suppress any person's right to vote," he wrote. "The people of Manatee County clearly demanded more early voting sites, and we complied. All elected officials should be expected to spend taxpayer money wisely, control costs, and provide necessary services in the most efficient and effective manner possible. The Manatee County Supervisor of Elections' office is doing just that."

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031.

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