Sarasota NAACP considering Department of Justice complaint over precinct consolidation

Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent

Trevor Harvey, the president of the Sarasota County branch of the NAACP, tells the News Leader his organization is “investigating the possibility of” asking the Department of Justice to review Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent’s precinct consolidation plan, approved by the County Commission earlier this week.

Harvey criticized Dent’s plan at Tuesday’s County Commission meeting, pointing out that a bill passed by the state Legislature in 2011 eliminated early voting on the Sunday before election day, a popular day for voting in Florida’s African-American community, and that the precinct consolidation will further reduce turnout among black voters. “We will have confused voters about where to vote,” Harvey told the commission. “To me, this is a classic case of voter suppression.”

“We are pursuing or investigating the possibility of bringing in the Department of Justice’s Division of Civil Rights,” Harvey says, when asked about the NAACP’s next steps in the matter. If Harvey’s organization does decide to request DOJ intervention, it would then be up to the federal agency to decide whether to investigate further.

“We’re just exploring those options,” Harvey says. “It’s early. The vote just came down on Tuesday. … It’s not something you do overnight.”

One issue that concerns Harvey is what he calls a lack of transparency about how the plan came to be. Dent’s office has announced a series of community town halls to inform the public about changes to the polling locations. Harvey says those meetings should have been held months ago, to solicit public input.

“We’re having meetings now,” he says. “We’re having meetings after the vote. We should have had meetings before.”

But Dent tells the News Leader that holding the meetings earlier wasn’t possible. She says the plan for them could be developed only after the state’s congressional, state Senate and state House districts were finalized, which didn’t happen till late April. According to Dent, state law requires that the precincts be in place by June 4, leaving little time to involve the public.

“There was no time to go to the public,” Dent says. Besides, “the public really doesn’t understand this whole process, in terms of, we take what we’re given from all the different political jurisdictions. … It’s not a matter of just putting voters somewhere.”

According to Dent, the plan is now basically finalized. She must submit the map to the Florida Department of State, which won’t review it, but will just keep it on file. That means that even if the public has sharp complaints about the new map at the upcoming public meetings, nothing now will change the plan. Unless, as Harvey notes, the Department of Justice is eventually involved.

Dent’s public hearings will be held at 5:30 p.m. on the following dates:

  • Tuesday, June 12, at the R. L. Anderson Administration Center, 4000 Tamiami Trail S., Venice
  • Wednesday, June 13, at Twin Lakes Park, 6700 Clark Road, Sarasota
  • Tuesday, June 19, at Selby Public Library, 1331 First St., Sarasota
  • Wednesday, June 20, at Morgan Family Community Center, 6207 W. Price Blvd, North Port
  • Thursday, June 21, at Robert Taylor Community Complex, 1845 34th St., Sarasota