On a party-line vote, a Florida county’s Republican majority Board of County Commissioners voted Tuesday to eliminate almost one-third of Manatee County’s voting sites. The board accepted a proposal by Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett (R) by a 6-1 vote to trim the number of precincts, despite unanimous public testimony against the move — and complaints by the lone Democratic Commissioner that it would eliminate half of the polling places in his heavily minority District 2.
Bennett, in his first term as elections supervisor, proposed reducing the number of Manatee County precincts from 99 to 69. Citing decreased Election Day turnout, as more voters switch to in-person early voting and vote-by-mail options, he told the commissioners that the move would save money and allow the county to offer more early voting sites in the future.
In the public comment section of the meeting, all ten speeches strongly opposed the move. Representatives of the local NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Council warned that the cuts would decrease voter turnout because voters would have to travel further to a polling place, especially among the elderly and people without cars, and noted that the cuts disproportionately affected minority-heavy precincts. Bennett dismissed these concerns, noting that because District 2 had received “preferential treatment in the past,” even with the changes, his district will have the smallest number of voters per precinct. “It was overbalanced before, it’s overbalanced now.” Bennett also repeatedly noted that he had discussed the move with civil rights groups and both the Republican and “Democrat” Parties.
Bennett assured the commission that if lines are longer in 2014 as a result of these changes, he would ask them to revisit the decision in 2015, before the 2016 elections. But it is unclear whether voter accessibility is a sincere priority for him. In 2011, while serving in the Florida Senate, he endorsed making it hard to vote: “I wouldn’t have any problem making it harder. I would want them to vote as badly as I want to vote. I want the people of the state of Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in Africa who’s willing to walk 200 miles…This should not be easy.” He made that comment as he supported a voter suppression bill that reduced the number of days for early voting in Florida and helped create long lines across the state.