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Manatee voter numbers on rise

MANATEE -- As the Florida Republican presidential primary nears, voter registration numbers in Manatee County are spiking.

So far, about 6,000 more residents have registered to vote than did in 2008, according to the county’s elections office.

The Republican presidential primary, set for Jan. 31, has drawn requests for 11,532 absentee ballot requests from Manatee County voters, as of Tuesday.

In 2008, a year with both contested Republican and Democratic presidential primaries, there were 11,785 absentee requests. A total of 5,535 Republicans and 3,716 Democrats voted absentee.

Registration records indicate there are at least 20,000 fewer Democrats registered than Republicans, a similar pattern to that of the last presidential election. As of Tuesday, there were 87,101 registered Republicans, 66,699 registered Democrats and 48,528 voters registered as independent, with no party affiliation or with minor parties.

“That balance has been that way for a number of years,” said Bob Sweat, elections supervisor. “History just proves itself.”

Richard O’Brien, chairman of the Manatee County Democrats and president of the Democratic Business Caucus of Florida, said party registration efforts will continue, despite the lag in Democrat registration.

“Vote suppression has virtually affirmed a victory” for the Republican Party, O’Brien said.

New state elections laws passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott have made it increasingly difficult for voters to register, O’Brien said, particularly “senior citizens, students, African Americans and the working poor” – individuals who typically vote Democratic and represent about 5 percent of the total state votes.

“It gives Republicans a 5 percent lead before anyone casts a vote,” O’Brien said. “But we are fighting the good fight ... as long as we deliver our base message and then some, we hope to stay strong.”

Pat Neal, a Mitt Romney supporter and former Florida state senator, said that claims of voter registration being an issue in Florida are “nonsense.”

“There’s been a lot of progress made in this world about who can be registered. Registration is much more universal, but also much more Republican,” said Neal. “But that’s because the Republican Party has a greater appeal on social and economic issues.”

He said that in the last 43 years, there has been a “steady decline” of support for Democrats in Manatee County.

“If Mitt Romney is a nominee, I’m very confident Florida will go for Republicans,” Neal said. “Romney has a special appeal to swing voters, moderate voters, independent voters and female voters, something (Newt) Gingrich does not.”

Sharon Stief, chief deputy of elections in Manatee County, said the last day to register for the Republican primaries is Jan. 3. It is also the last day to change party affiliations in time before the primary.

Requests to change parties must be submitted via a signed, written note, and postmarked by Jan. 3.

Stief said overseas absentee ballots have been mailed, and domestic ballots will be mailed Dec. 29.

“Ballots must be returned by 7 p.m. Jan. 31. They have to be opened and tabulated, so they have to be in our office by then,” Stief said.

Sweat recommends local voters mail in their ballots.

“If you look at the options, voting by mail is a lot cheaper than driving to a voting place and spending money on gas,” he said.