Thousands of Manatee County voters moved to inactive list after registration deadline

MANATEE -- Thousands of Manatee County voters were moved to the inactive list about a week after the state-mandated deadline, but it will not affect their abilities to vote, according to Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett.

"What happens is if you are an active voter and you go to vote, you swipe your driver's license and vote," said Bennett. "What happens if you are an inactive voter and you go to vote, you swipe your driver's license and you vote. Nothing changes."

But Bennett acknowledged the move was a mistake.

"We have since discovered that you cannot send a notice to anybody within 90 days of an election and we missed that date by about a week when the button was hit to move those voters," said Bennett. "So we are looking at how to reverse that action because technically we are wrong. If we can fix it we will, but it will not affect anyone's ability to vote."

Moving voters to the inactive list saves significant mailing costs, and the process is done about every month, Bennett said.

"What being moved to the inactive list means is that you are a registered voter who has not voted in the last two general elections, or we have sent out an absentee ballot and it comes back to us as you not being there," he said. "If that happens, we send out another letter informing them that they could be placed on the inactive list and if that letter comes back to us, too, then we have to assume that you are no longer living where you are registered."

Bennett said his salary is based on the number of registered voters.

"So when I move people to inactive, my salary

could go down, but it's still the right thing to do when you consider how much it costs us to mail ballots and letters," he said.

He said 40,000 absentee ballots were mailed last election, about 4,000 were returned unopened and another 3,000 were returned undeliverable.

"At about a buck a pop, it doesn't make sense to mail them again when we've already received mail back indicating they aren't there," he said.

Of the 7,760 voters moved to the inactive list, 2,715 were Democrats, 2,684 were Republicans and 2,361 were registered as "other." Bennett said the numbers are significantly higher than normal because they are based on the August primary election during a busy mailing cycle.

Manatee Democratic Party Chairwoman Patty Benson said voters should have been notified.

"If people don't vote, it's their own fault," she said. "I don't disagree with what he (Bennett) does, but it is courtesy and we should have been notified well ahead of time. There is a communication issue from that office."

Manatee County Republican Chairwoman Kathleen King said Bennett was just doing his job, and that there was nothing partisan in the action.

"I don't think Democrats are being targeted. I don't think we are. I don't think either side is," said King. "Voters have a responsibility to vote. As far as communication is concerned, we typically don't get consulted on every issue, but I do know that when there is a reason to do so, he brings in both parties. I don't think it would be proper for him to consult with either party on everything. He has a job to do and we have campaigns to run."

Names of voters moved to the inactive list will be provided to Benson so she can contact them about their situation.

"It's basically too late for this election," she said. "It's just too much work and too little time to do that this time."

Bennett said voters will not know the difference at the poll. There are roughly 35,000 inactive voters in Manatee County, "but they are still there," he said. "They aren't removed from the registered voter list. It's just a matter of representing to the public the most accurate numbers we can."

Bennett said the state is aware of the issue, and because it doesn't affect a voter's ability to cast a ballot, indicated it wasn't a drastic error. Still, Manatee County needed to try to fix it, he said.

"And we are doing that," said Bennett, who noted the error should be corrected by this weekend. "We are working with VR Systems, which manages the voter rolls. But even when we get this resolved and move these inactive voters back to active, in January we will be moving them right back off if we don't get some verification that they are in Manatee County."

Bennett said voters can go to votemanatee.com to verify their active-voter status and if there is an issue, can resolve it there.

Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.