MANATEE -- A national coalition of voting-rights groups say Floridians face persistent barriers to voting that could result in more ballots not counting in November, and singling out Manatee County for inconveniencing its voters.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Advancement Project and other groups cited Manatee, Polk and Orange counties for problems they claim they found in last month's statewide primary election.
The groups said Florida should encourage more people to register to vote, that voters are inconvenienced by changes in polling places, and that voters are not always told about a new law gives them a second chance to fix their absentee ballots should they forget to sign them, officials said during a news conference Tuesday.
The groups singled out Manatee County, saying its elimination of polling places requires some black voters to travel longer distances to vote.
In February, county commissioners OK'd Supervisor
of Elections Mike Bennett's plan to close about 30 percent of polling places.
Bennett's staff reviewed each one, checking such factors as the size of the facility, barrier-free access and parking, centralized location and whether it was on a bus route.
Of 99 original polling locations, elections officials closed 34 precincts and opened five new ones for a total of 70 polling locations. The elections office also opened three additional early voting sites and changed the precinct numbering system.
Local moves defended
When asked about the watchdog groups' comments, Bennett replied Wednesday, "We made it much easier for our people to vote; we expanded early voting sites from one to four; we pushed to get people to vote by mail, so I don't understand what their criticism is."
"I don't know what else we could have done," he said.
"We met with the Republicans, the Democrats, the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, an America Vote group, we met with all those people, and tried the best we could to address their issues," Bennett said.
"If we experience a particular issue, we'll change prior to the presidential election (in 2016)," he said.
Susie Copeland, president of the Manatee County NAACP, said she had opposed the precinct closings and had met with Bennett a number of times.
Confusion among voters
Copeland said she did not receive a single telephone call from voters who could not find their new polling places during the August primary election. However, in pre-election canvassing of minority neighborhoods, she met many confused voters.
"At Carter Temple, most people had not been aware their location had been closed," said Copeland.
Carter Temple CME Church, 540 11th Ave W., Bradenton, was convenient because it was located in a neighborhood inhabited by the elderly, who just walked to the polls, Copeland said.
When the county closed the church's polling place, voters had to shift to a new one farther away that required transportation, Copeland said.
The confusion was not limited to those neighborhoods, said Patty Benson, chairwoman of the Manatee Democratic Party.
"Some voters I know went to their original precincts, not only in black communities, but also in white, and when they were at the wrong precincts, when they asked if they could vote, they (poll workers) said, 'No,'" said Benson.
"Some had problems with change of address, and they were not allowed to vote because of that," she added. "In the past, they had always been allowed to change their address and vote, but they couldn't do that this time."
Officials from the Advancement Project, a multi-racial civil rights organization with offices in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, plan to be in Manatee County to observe during the Nov. 4 general election, Benson said.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.
The Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau contributed to this report.