There has been a great deal of interest in the Board of County Commissioners recent vote to approve the proposed changes to Manatee County voting precincts. The following is some information to consider.
When I was running for the office of Supervisor of Elections, I was asked time and time again, if we would have more early voting sites in Manatee County. The questions and in fact, the push for more early voting sites came from all political parties, all areas of the county, and even the editorial boards.
Since the demand for more early voting sites was such a hot topic, our office set out to see what we could do to accommodate the voters of Manatee County. We determined that the cost of establishing early voting sites would be approximately $25,000 per location. This includes staffing each site with eight people, for 12 hours minimum per day, for a minimum of eight days, equipment cost of approximately $10,000 per location, and all the other associated costs.
The total cost of additional early voting sites must, of course, be budgeted. There are two ways to achieve that: Increase the budget or reduce expenses elsewhere. In June the voters of Manatee County overwhelmingly indicated that they were not in favor of increasing taxes. In addition, the county was and is on a mission to reduce expenses where possible to redirect revenue to rising costs such as indigent health care and infrastructure, all while coping with concerns about stability of property tax revenue. Given all these factors, the right decision was clearly to keep the elections budget static.
Statistics show that there has been a significant increase in the number of voters taking advantage of early voting and vote by mail. This upward trend is expected to continue. Coupled with the fact that a number of precincts that had very low numbers of voters on Election Day, it made sense to take a closer look at the effectiveness of all precincts.
Several precincts did not meet or only marginally met the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These were very difficult for senior citizens and those with disabilities. A number of other precincts did not offer ready access from public transportation.
We also evaluated costs associated with rent, phone line accessibility, delivery access, etc. And finally and we looked at the voter turnout at the polls, relative to the vote by mail and early voting exercised for each location. This gave us our preliminary recommendations for precinct changes.
At this point we sought input from interested organizations and groups. We had several meetings with representatives from the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as the NAACP and the League of Women Voters. We reviewed each polling location in detail and requested their comments. One comment from one of the written response says, in part, that the reduction of voting locations is justified if done for the right reasons and if all voters are treated equally. The written response also indicates that they were aware that some of the African American precincts had a very low turnout and specifically "We do not see a problem with those churches being closed and being moved to the closest precinct possible."
So, did we treat all voters as equitably as possible? The most concern has been expressed regarding District 2, Commissioner Michael Gallen's district. Prior to the precinct changes approved by the Board of County Commissioners on Feb. 11, District 2 had an average of 1,444 registered voters per location.
The other four commission districts all had much higher numbers. In fact, District 5 had an average of 2,650 voters per location -- over 80 percent more than the average in District 2. With the approved precinct changes in place, District 2 still has the lowest number of voters per location.
District 2 also has a new early voting site, for a total of two early voting sites in that district. No other district has two early voting sites, and in fact, neither District 3 nor District 4 one. So some might say we favored the voters in District 2.
Some criticism states that 10 of the 30 locations closed were in the lower economic areas. Which means that the majority, two-thirds of the closed locations, are in the more affluent areas.
The discussion will go on, but I assure you there was never any action by this office to suppress any person's right to vote. 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.
As I stated at the commission meeting, I wanted to make these changes for the 2014 election cycle so if in fact this structure does not best serve the voters of Manatee County, we can make adjustments prior to the 2016 Presidential Election.