County Commission approves precinct consolidation plan

The Sarasota County Commission voted 4-1 May 22 to approve a plan to consolidate voting precincts. Photo by Norman Schimmel

In spite of pleas from representatives of the African American and Hispanic communities in north Sarasota County, and some commissioner reservations about the lack of public awareness of the matter, the Sarasota County Commission voted 4-1 May 21 to allow the consolidation and renumbering of voter precincts throughout the county.

Commissioner Carolyn Mason, the only African American on the board, cast the single “No” vote.

Prior to the board discussion of the new precincts, Ed James, representing the Coalition of African American Leadership, told the commissioners that Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent should have provided opportunities for citizens to look at the proposed plans before Dent brought them to the commission for action.

“It is my hope and fervent prayer that you will not approve these changes,” he told the commissioners.

“And please be mindful of Section 5,” James said.

James was referring to a portion of the U.S. Voting Rights Act that calls for freezes on new election practices in certain states, including Florida, until those changes have undergone a federal review to make certain they comply with the provisions of the 1965 act.

Trevor Harvey, president of the Sarasota County chapter of the NAACP, pointed out that state voting law changes already had taken away the Sunday before an election day as an early-voting day, and that day commonly was one of heavy voting among African Americans. Along with that change, he said, “we will have confused voters about where to vote. … To me, this is a classic case of voter suppression.”

Kelly Kirschner, a former mayor of Sarasota who works with Hispanics as executive director of an organization called Unidos Now, agreed with Harvey that the precinct changes, “whether … intentional or not, [are] another form of voter suppression.”

Commissioner Jon Thaxton said, “I am kind of concerned that when [the precinct changes go into effect], that the board is going to receive a great number of phone calls, because we really haven’t done a lot of outreach to let people know ahead of time what to expect. … I would rather have had the outreach before the vote.”

Additionally, he said, with the precinct changes in the northern part of the county, “the first thing that came to my mind was the Section 5 concerns. It doesn’t take much of a trigger for the county to become engaged in a [U.S. Department of Justice] investigation. I don’t even want to come close to that.”

When Thaxton asked County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh whether his staff had evaluated the new precinct plan for compliance with Section 5, DeMarsh replied that he assumed Dent would have consulted her counsel on that point before proposing the plan.

“Frankly,” Dent said, “I don’t see this being a problem with the DOJ.”

If problems arose after the precincts were changed, Thaxton said, the commission would be able to address those issues.

District line changes

Because the County Commission changed its own districts last year, and the results of the 2010 U.S. Census had dictated changes in district lines for both congressional and legislative seats, Dent said, this was a good time to consolidate precincts. The plan would save about $100,000 per election, she added.

Florida was one of the last two states in the union, she said, to receive U.S. Department of Justice approval of new voting districts.

Mason told Dent it would have been preferable for Dent and her staff to have explained to voters why the changes were being proposed before bringing the issue to the board. “You and your staff understand [the situation],” Mason said, “but the average voter may not.”

Dent responded that she was working on “a very compressed timeline.”

When Dent said she believed the County Commission had held just one public hearing on its new districts, right before voting on them, Chairwoman Christine Robinson replied, “We had three public meetings on that. Three meetings where people could come up and talk.”

Voter notification

Once the County Commission approved the consolidation plan, Dent said, she and her staff planned to mail a postcard by the end of May to every registered voter, explaining about the new precincts. In June, she said, a second mailing would provide voters with new registration cards and tell them what districts they are in, as well as their polling places and voting options.

Then, Dent said, before the primary in August and the presidential election in November, every registered voter would receive a sample ballot.

Finally, Dent said she had scheduled a town hall meeting in each of the County Commission districts, to help voters understand the information about the new districts and precincts.

When Mason asked why the information was so limited on the Supervisor of Elections website, Dent responded that she had been awaiting the commission’s approval of the precinct plan, as she could not be certain how the commission would vote.

Dent agreed with Thaxton that “there’s going to be a lot of confusion.” However, she said, “This is 2012, and we do have no-excuse absentee voting. People don’t need to worry about walking to the polls,” she added, referring to remarks James and Harvey also had made, indicating many voters in the northern part of the county would have to travel further to reach their new precincts.

For Precinct 77, at the Robert Taylor Community Center in Newtown, Dent said, the greatest distance anyone would have to travel to vote would be 1.6 miles, whereas the greatest distance in past elections has been 1.8 miles. Across the county, she said, the average distance any voter will have to travel to a precinct will be 3.02 miles.

“It just takes a telephone call to my office,” Dent said, for a person to request an absentee ballot, or an absentee ballot could be requested by mail.

Regarding the reduction in the number of early-voting days, Dent pointed out that the number of early-voting hours would remain the same, at 96. The early-voting sites will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Moreover, Dent said, her office staffs six early-voting locations throughout the county, including the North Sarasota Library, at 2801 Newtown Blvd.

She also pointed out that the consolidation plan had eliminated only one polling place in new Precinct 115, in north Sarasota County: Calvary Baptist Church. That new precinct consolidates five current precincts.

In response to a question from Commissioner Nora Patterson, Dent said the average reduction in county precincts across the state was 34%. In Sarasota County, she said, the figure would be 37%.

Commissioner Joe Barbetta told Dent, “It’s unfortunate there’s a lot of misinformation out there,” adding that Dent was in no way responsible for new legislative or County Commission districts.

Moreover, he told Dent, “We’ve asked you to consolidate [precincts] over the years. … The advent of no-excuse absentee ballots has changed the process completely.”