Manatee elections supervisor candidates face tough questions

BRADENTON -- Candidates for Manatee County Supervisor of Elections faced a barrage of questions Thursday, as Florida's voting habits seem to be among the nation's hottest political topics.

The first question during a panel discussion at Pier 22 sponsored by the Tiger Bay Club was aimed at state Sen. Mike Bennett, who once said he wanted people to "have to walk across town to go over and vote."

The questioner wanted to know what Bennett, R-Bradenton, meant when he said it during a Senate debate last year.

"I said that I want people to want to fight for it," said Bennett, who is leaving the senate due to term limits.

"I want people to want to fight for it as hard as many people do in some of those third-world countries ... We have such a small turnout ... I don't think that people pay enough attention to it. So, that's what I said; if it came out different, that's exactly what I meant, I really do,"

Bennett said.

"I want people to want to fight for it, to want people to go down and stand and work, and know who the candidates are, and know who they're voting for, and oftentimes, we don't have that."

Another questioner sought the candidates' views on Gov. Rick Scott's lawsuit against the federal government, which concerned a purge of voters.

Republican Ed Bailey, a finance manager and former president of the Manatee branch of the NAACP, said, "What the governor's trying to do is try to identify people who are ineligible to vote -- and that's what we should be doing, anyway; we can do it at a local level; it's something we should be doing, it's called 'list maintenance.'"

The elections office should check death certificates and those who say they are ineligible for jury duty, and purge those names from the rolls, he said.

"What we're trying to do is protect the safety of the voting system, and we need to be pro-active in this, so I support the governor's stance on that, and I think that, honestly, the federal government needs to stay out of Florida's business and let us do our job," he concluded.

Democratic church pastor Charles N. Williams Jr. had a different view.

While saying it's necessary to ensure there is no fraud, Williams noted: "I think every man and woman has a right to vote, and should have a right to vote; I don't think oppression should be an issue in America and no other country; we ought to be able to vote freely, and without a lot of oppression, that we see happening now in different laws that are coming up to oppress people, and keep them from voting."

When the candidates were asked if they had ever dealt with the state clemency board in trying to help ex-felons regain voting rights, Republican candidate Richard Bedford said he had not.

However, the architect and developer said "Certainly, as part of the role of supervisor of elections, if someone has earned the right to reinstate their voting rights, then that has to be accomplished. And if we have to talk to someone, shall we say, in order to get that done, I think that's right."

In answer to a question about whether she would change the voting system as it is now in favor of something more high-tech, former Manatee County Commissioner Jane von Hahmann said retiring Manatee Supervisor Bob Sweat was "way in front of the curve" with the optical scan system, she said, adding, "And that paper trail for me is, ultimately, important" until there is a way to insure computers cannot be electronically compromised.

Two other candidates, Republicans Eric Hanson and Rodney "Smokey" Smithley, did not attend.

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