Blame the writers of the U.S. Constitution. They wanted a census every 10 years, and before anybody knew it, the results were used to draw up electoral boundaries. Sometimes the drawings were more creative than representational.
The exercise is called redistricting, and the entire United States is going through it — including the City and County of Sarasota — based on the 2010 Census. Politicians draw and approve their own boundaries, sometimes with wild results.
But the nitty-gritty detail of where people vote is left up to the local supervisor of elections. In Sarasota County, that’s Kathy Dent. On Tuesday, June 19, she held a public meeting at the Selby Library to explain why lots of voters will be casting their ballots in a different place this year.
In the interest of efficiency, she’s slashed the number of polling places by a third, to 85 from 127. And she has cut the total number of precincts in the county by a similar fraction – to 98 from 156. In County Commission District Two, which covers much of the City of Sarasota, the number of polling places was cut to 15 from 28.
Will this cause confusion? You bet, which is why Dent is on the road with a number of public meetings to help with the transition.
The countywide redistricting was a huge endeavor, because the politicians were busy drawing their boundaries. Two Sarasota County Commission districts were radically restructured, only to have one of the incumbents eliminated from re-election because the Florida Supreme Court ruled in favor of county commission term limits in charter counties, such as Sarasota.
The city district map was redrawn, the congressional district was redrawn and the Florida House and Senate districts were redrawn. And because the county Charter Review Board follows County Commission districts, its members, too, were affected.
With all this drawing, Dent had to make sure each of the 85 precincts was in only one district per office. In other words, a voter would be voting in the correct district for Congress, Florida House and Senate and County Commission, plus the nearly 80 special districts for lighting, fire protection, stormwater and other micro-local boards.
The exercise was a race for Dent, because Florida was the second-to-last state to get its redistricting approved by the U.S. Department of Justice (a bureaucratic holdover from the days of segregation). The DOJ approval came on April 30, and she had until May 8 to get a reprecincting plan before the County Commission.
With that done, Dent is cautioning voters to be alert for the changes. All of them will be tested on Aug. 14, during the primary election.
In the next 10 days, all registered voters should be receiving a new voter registration card. It will give the address of the correct, and perhaps new, polling location. There is a fair chance you won’t be voting at the old place anymore.
If you are a registered voter and don’t get your card in the mail by mid-July, you need to get in touch with the Supervisor of Elections Office. The phone number is 861-8600. Or you may use the internet to find www.sarasotavotes.com or you may email Dent at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you would like to vote by mail, you may use the same number, website or email to make your request, and the elections staff will guide you from there. The old regulations – “tell me why you can’t vote in person” – no longer apply. Just ask, and you’ll receive a mail-in ballot.
If you are not a registered voter, you have until July 16 to fill out a form and get registered. Thanks to a court decision, it is again possible for civic groups such as the League of Women Voters and others to hold registration drives.
More and more people are taking advantage of early voting, with upwards of 40 percent of the electorate casting ballots by mail or in government buildings before Election Day, Dent says.
There will be early voting from Aug. 4 through Aug. 11 at the Terrace Hotel at the intersection of U.S. 301 and Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota; the North County Library; the Gulf Gate Library; the R.L. Anderson Administration Building at 4000 S. Tamiami Trail in Venice; and Biscayne Plaza in North Port. The locations will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
For the general election, early voting will be from Oct. 27 to Nov. 3 at the same locations, plus Fruitville Library. Hours of operation will be from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.