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Election 2012 Race Analysis: Manatee County Supervisor of Elections

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Senator Mike Bennett

MANATEE COUNTY -- The 2012 Manatee Supervisor of Elections Race has been a roller coaster. First, there were six candidates in the Republican primary. One of them dropped out. Another, Rodney “Smokey” Smithley, did not qualify for the ballot and is now running as a write-in candidate, while Michael Bennett, who won the Republican nomination despite a sordid record on voting rights while in the state Senate, faces Democrat Charles Williams on the ballot, who was unopposed in his party's primary.

Bennett has raised over $136,000 for the local post, more than double that of the other six primary and general election candidates combined. Currently serving in the Florida Senate, but at his term limit, Bennett was at the center of Florida's controversial new voting laws. During the 2011 session, Bennett was famously quoted while defending the law, criticized as designed to suppress the votes of minorities, as saying, "I don't have a problem making it harder (to vote). I want the people in the state of Florida to want to vote as badly as that person in Africa who is willing to walk 200 miles for that opportunity he’s never had before in his life. This should not be easy.”

That didn't stop him from winning the Republican primary, though Bennett has since toned down his position, saying that he now believes there are more problems with fraud in absentee ballots than at the polls. Write-in candidate Rodney “Smokey” Smithley is to the right of Bennett on voting rights. Smithley says that despite what voters may think or that the data says otherwise, fraud at the polls is an epidemic throughout the country that is responsible for much voter apathy, and votes lost to a lack of faith in "truth in voting." Smithley has advocated for birth certificates at voter registration and photo I.D. laws at the polls. At the candidates' recent METV debate, Smithley summed up his position as follows: 

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Rodney "Smokey" Smithley

“Since 9/11, we know that our country is not safe anymore, and I feel that we need to have something in place that is gonna stop this fraud. Mainstream America – to go in any government buildings we need to have ID's to go in there, so that the government knows who we are and that we're American citizens, and I'm letting the public know and Manatee County know that the (voting) fraud is running rampant in this country and in Florida, and we need to get it under control.”

To his credit, Smithley said he was the only candidate who spent the entire primary at the Supervisor of Elections office, observing the process of running an election. Each candidate acknowledged that they had no experience in such a role, but each pointed to their variety of business management and leadership positions that they feel make them a good fit. All three had nothing but positive things to say about current supervisor Bob Sweat and pledged to maintain the excellence of his office.

Williams was the only candidate who mentioned making it easier to vote (one of the pillars of the office) and the only one who thought citizens being denied their right to vote was a larger concern than making sure that registered voters were legal.

At the end the day, there is a lot of funny business that can happen at the polls. However, there is almost no evidence that in-person voting fraud has been anything but an anomaly here in Florida, or anywhere else in the United States. However, the vast preponderance of laws, including the one sponsored by Senator Bennett, proclaim to address just that, without addressing the forms that fraud is more likely to take.

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Charles Williams

The fact that such laws have been demonstrated to have a much greater impact on minorities and the poor – both of whom tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic – and have been lobbied for (and in most cased written) by the conservative group ALEC, then passed exclusively in Republican dominated states, leaves little question that the intent is to skew the outcome of elections, rather than address non-existent problems. And cutting the early voting period by six days, as the legislature did in that law, clearly has nothing to do with fraud and everything to do with eliminating one of the two Sundays in the early voting period, which were used very successfully by African American churches to shuttle voters without transportation to the polls after Sunday services in 2008.

SOE candidates who refuse to discuss the partisan nature of such legislation should give voters of any political persuasion pause. Elections are supposed to be a competition of ideas, not a competition as to who can best stack the odds in their party's favor. And while those who have proven an ability to do just that have been well-rewarded by special interests, they should not be rewarded by voters.

As for this race, the saddest part is that the most competent and qualified candidates have already been eliminated. Bennett clearly has the edge in campaign funding, name recognition and experience in public administration (though little that would seem to lend itself to the SOE post). But he also brings a ton of baggage, including the fact that he remains very involved in partisan politics, not exactly a selling point for an office that requires extreme non-partisanship. None of this bothered voters in the primary, which Bennett won in a walk. We'll find out Tuesday if it flies in the general.

Click here to watch the candidates METV debate.


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