Manatee County Commission adds one precinct after protests

skennedy@bradenton.comFebruary 26, 2014 

MANATEE -- After complaints from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and others, the Manatee County Commission voted Tuesday to add one more Bradenton polling precinct back following a decision to close 30 earlier this month.

The commission acted after receiving a letter from Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett recommending adding a precinct at Rogers Community United Methodist Church.

"This additional precinct will mean shorter commutes to the polls for voters concerned," Bennett wrote of the church at 1100 15th St. E., Bradenton. "Through these meetings and discussions, it became clear that by adding one precinct in District 2, we could alleviate many of the issues raised out of concern for the voters of this district."

Commissioners said they received mostly adverse comments about Bennett's recommendation to close 30 of 99 county polling places, which the commission approved in a 6-1 vote Feb. 11.

Commissioner Michael Gallen was the sole vote against the closings, with Commission Chairman Larry Bustle and Commissioners Robin DiSabatino, Betsy Benac, Vanessa Baugh, Carol Whitmore and

John Chappie voting in favor. Bennett, previously a Republican legislator, drew fire from those who complained his plan would inconvenience minority and poorer voters while benefiting more affluent areas. Critics continued to object Tuesday before the decision to add the polling place.

"We've become the laughingstock of the nation," said Palmetto City Commissioner Charles Smith, who is also running as a Democratic county commission candidate in District 2 and is the NAACP's first vice president.

He asked the commission to reconsider its earlier vote.

"We cannot allow democracy to be interfered with" at the ballot box, he said, noting it was Bennett's job to encourage people to vote.

"Don't tie yourself to him. He's all over the place," Smith concluded.

Former County Commissioner Gwen Brown similarly did not mince words.

"If there's anything you've ever done that was not kosher or in the best interests of those you serve, that's it," she told the commission.

The board will send a letter to Bennett asking for more details about why polling place closures were needed.

Commissioners also wanted to know whether the elections office might pay the postage for those casting absentee ballots in this year's primary and general elections.

"For this election, we really need to mend some fences," said DiSabatino.

Bennett's original plan included five new polling places and three new early voting sites. He is also changing the precinct numbering system.

Bennett had told the board he carefully scrutinized each precinct. Some were inaccessible to the handicapped or lacked parking, he said.

Since voters increasingly favor early voting and vote-by-mail, Bennett said he decided to close precincts partly on those factors, along with budgetary considerations. 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 eight days leading up to Election Day, he said.

Bennett did not return a telephone call seeking comment late Tuesday.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.

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